Speculations that the U.S. might build and operate a 5G network were a false alarm. Whoever ends up building the next generation of wireless network infrastructure, it seems like a good time to imagine what 5G networks could mean in healthcare. The major telcos claim that 5G networks could deliver up to twenty times the speed of current 4G networks. To put this in context: the average U.S. consumer uses about 10 gigabytes of data per month today. 5G networks could handle this volume in a few seconds.
Whoever ends up building the next generation of wireless network infrastructure, it seems like a good time to imagine what 5G networks could mean in healthcare.
This kind of bandwidth presents opportunities that, for now, patients, providers, payers and other stakeholders lack the tools to handle. Mobile versions of all kinds of provider applications have made real inroads in a variety of clinical and administrative areas. Device manufacturers have amassed a mixed record when it comes to leveraging mobile networks. No offense healthcare, but the applications, devices, and processes are just not in place to really exploit this much bandwidth. For 5G to contribute, it will need to build on other technologies.
Patients with recent radiology images stored on their Apple Health Record-enabled phone could transmit the DICOM files and notes to a new provider in an instant on a 5G network. Right now, few patients store their medical records on their phones but this could change over the next few years if Apple and Epic have their way.
There has been a lot of focus on how medical and health-monitoring devices, clinical wearables, and remote sensors can contribute to better health for patients and a more efficient healthcare system. The thinking is that such data, received and analyzed in real-time will drive better systems, population, and patient outcomes. For most patient and providers, the vague promises of the Internet of Things (IoT) hasn’t yet led to dramatic changes in how patients experience healthcare. FitBits, that least favorite distraction of PCPs everywhere, are a good example of a device type that may have arrived before its time. Devices that track more variables and always-on connectivity to really high-speed wireless networks could improve the utility of and outlook for such devices.
The biggest potential for 5G is in what we currently call telehealth. By 2028, we will marvel at our present tolerance of comically low-quality photographs and video on-line. Cameras by then will provide “immersive” virtual reality (VR) and video streaming that people can take seriously and rely on. But such quality requires a lot of bandwidth. 5G networks and better cameras will provide a quality level that can support a thriving application ecosystem for network-mediated encounters. Immersive virtual encounters will be the new ED or urgent care center. Many such encounters will undoubtedly include data from new remote monitoring devices as well. It’s a lot less expensive for a virtual provider to triage patients who believe they need immediate attention than it is for a facilities-based provider. At the same time, emergency services will be able to consult with hospital clinicians in real-time. Payers need to get on board and clarify their goals around allocating incentives for in-person-versus virtual encounters. When cameras and devices get better and networks get faster, we won’t use the term telehealth any more. It will merely be the way that most patients start most encounters with the healthcare system.
It takes time for different technologies to mesh and build on each other. After all, the internet and Seinfeld, the TV show, were around long before people could finally watch old Seinfeld episodes on their phones while waiting for a table in a Chinese restaurant. For Seinfeld-on-demand to be a real option, 4G networks and smartphones had to be independently developed. So it will be with 5G networks. Devices, cameras, and applications will need to improve before 5G’s massive bandwidth upgrade adds value to healthcare.