VA to open "America's first" all 5G-enabled hospital in Palo Alto this week

The U.S. will get its first entirely 5G-enabled hospital this week as the Department of Veterans Affairs brings the technology up online at its Palo Alto hospital. 

The VA's Palo Alto Health Care System, which is an affiliate of Stanford University School of Medicine, will be coming online as also the first 5G-enabled health facility in the world, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said Wednesday. 

"Some might ask 'Why is 5G important to veterans?'" Wilkie said while speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

"What 5G will deliver is richer, more detailed, three-dimensional images of the patient's anatomy with resolution so clear and consistent that it will give us reliable use of important telesurgery services to veterans across the nation," Wilkie said. "That means reliable capacity to allow the VA's best physicians to consult during surgery even when they are not in the same room or halfway across the country."

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It will also be a breakthrough for surgeons in the operating room, he said. 

"Imagine a doctor being able to see layers beneath the skin before the first incision is ever made," Wilkie said. "The FDA was never able to approve these sorts of practices in surgery because 4G technology simply could not carry that much information. We are on the cutting edge and moving forward in ways that just a few years ago were unimaginable."

Wilkie also discussed briefly the Cerner electronic health record (EHR) system as well as other medical innovation projects the VA is in the midst of. That included:

  • Exoskeletons: The VA has branched out into new research involving exoskeletons that can be controlled by the patient being assisted by the mobility device, he said.

    "Traditionally exoskeletons do the work of moving patients who can't move on their own," he said. "But we've launched a pilot to launch exoskeletons that stimulate the spinal cord and we're seeing promising results." The ambition of the project is to retrain patients who are unable to walk on their own how to walk again under their own power, he said. 
  • Virtual reality: The VA partnered with a nonprofit called "Soldier Strong" at the University of Southern California to use applied virtual reality (VR) to help veterans with PTSD and pain management. "We've found giving veterans the chance to process those emotions can be an effective treatment for PTSD," Willkie said. VR can also help block pain signals from reaching the brain and is a drug-free supplement to traditional pain therapies, he said.

RELATED: VA $16B EHR project moving forward without key governance leadership in place

  • Telehealth: The VA is already using telehealth to consult with rural patients. "We partnered with Walmart to help veterans in this way even when they don't live anywhere near a VA clinic," he said. "Telehealth is also being used to diagnose patients remotely. Many veterans develop diabetes, for example, which makes it hard for the body to deliver blood to the extremities and can lead to complications such as foot ulcers."

    He said the VA can monitor temperature variations caused by this problem remotely using floor mats embedded with thermographic sensors that can be used at home. "These foot ulcers cost the VA $3.2 billion a year. Now we can get ahead of this problem by detecting them earlier."