Industry Voices—5G and the potential for widespread healthcare disruption

Historically, the healthcare industry has been slower to adopt new and emerging technologies—partially due to regulatory boundaries and legacy IT infrastructure. But as of late, the healthcare industry is rapidly becoming one of the most technologically advanced in the world.

New and emerging technologies are becoming established tools that help healthcare companies and professionals provide exceptional customer service and patient care. This is also spurring new startups that are entering the fray with innovative ideas to disrupt this industry with data, analytics, robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence. The range of benefits includes the complete value chain of healthcare, everything from administrative duties, such as triage and payments, to medical diagnostics, advanced medicine, clinical trials and collaborative initiatives at life sciences organizations.

This recent surge in technological adoption could not be more perfectly timed, as 5G comes to the forefront, causing waves of disruption across a wide variety of industries. The potential for 5G integration is limitless. 5G has the potential to revolutionize and reinvent car connectivity, manufacturing and supply chain automation, and more. But a less discussed topic—and potentially one of the most impactful use cases for the technology—exists in healthcare.

Predictive care through wearable health will surge

Wearable technologies have become increasingly health-focused even with general consumer applications, such as heart rate monitors and fitness trackers on Apple Watches, Fitbits, and the like. With increased connectivity speeds and lower latency that comes with 5G, these wearables will become smarter, faster, and more agile. The 5G network will allow for wearable devices to monitor and transmit larger, more complex data sets in real time—bringing previously unimaginable remote-care services directly to patients and consumers.

Preventive care with the help of wearables will improve communication between patients and healthcare providers by providing real-time data and analysis. It will also lead to potentially lower hospital readmission rates.

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Additionally, global collaboration will become more seamless, allowing healthcare providers to widen their networks and tap their peers’ knowledge with a much more diverse set of population data to solve complex healthcare problems. When combined with AI, 5G will allow for more personalized customer care through wearable technology, having the ability to learn and adapt to each patient’s patterns, and understanding that each person’s health is uniquely defined by individual variables.

Robotics in medicine will become more precise 

The development of the surgical robot has allowed for minimally invasive surgeries that provide the patient with less post-op scarring, faster recovery times, and reduced body trauma. 5G has the potential to further normalize the use of robot-assisted telesurgery by increasing the connectivity capabilities between the doctor and the machine. Not only that, but telesurgery tools and points of operation can become even more precise and smaller in scale—similarly to how manufacturing shop-floor robots will be able to conduct smaller-in-size, precision tasks—all thanks to 5G.

Currently, robotic surgery is very much in use in a few countries and in advanced medical facilities (e.g., the Intuitive da Vinci assisted surgical systems), enabling human-machine interaction where the surgeon is onsite with the robotic equipment. Tactile internet (networks overlaying data of all types enabling steering and control) powered by 5G holds out tremendous promise for robot-assisted telesurgery in myriad situations because of critical timing requirements: e.g., blunt trauma/accident injuries requiring operative procedures in ambulances and in war zones, in remote locations without surgical specialists or in developing countries where per capita specialists are limited.

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It is a very difficult problem to solve at a mass scale and guarantee service in wider usage because it requires haptic feedback (force and tactile) for the remote operation. With only visual sensory feedback, the real promises of robot-assisted telesurgery will never be delivered. Multimodal sensorial inputs especially along with haptic feedback enabled by 5G and other innovations will lead to wider usage and revolutionize the quality, cost and availability of healthcare.

Administrative tasks will become streamlined 

5G will also have the ability to help healthcare administrators better communicate with patients in a more contextual way. One of the most impactful ways 5G can optimize administrative needs is in triage, allowing automated tools to communicate with patients in real time. When paired with AI on an online portal, 5G will provide patients with tools to discuss their cause of concern, access information about pre-existing conditions, and even receive treatment recommendations and prescription fills all online, without the need to come in for an appointment. This will be especially useful for late-night issues that would normally require an ER visit or waiting until the morning to call the doctor.

If an appointment is deemed necessary, the patient will then be able to automatically schedule a visit that best fits their schedule—both maximizing patient satisfaction with administrative services, and optimizing the administrative time and resources of the healthcare provider.

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Additionally, real-time communication between healthcare providers, insurance providers, and other third-party organizations will be streamlined along with complete data visibility for decision making. 5G will allow for data transfer between multiple parties with exceptional efficiency.

The healthcare industry has been historically slow to adopt new and emerging technology, especially from an administrative standpoint. However, the development of 5G brings new opportunities to the industry—providing new solutions for preventative care, administrative services, hospital, and surgical technologies.

Spandan Mahapatra is global head of the business solutions unit at Tata Consultancy Services.