Industry Voices—5G has the potential to transform healthcare for rural communities

Just as it promises to increase speeds and reduce latency for consumers, 5G technology also has the potential to transform how healthcare is delivered.

In telehealth, 5G will drive near real-time, high-quality video required for remote medical consultations. By leveraging 5G mobile edge compute, hospitals and doctors can have on-hand access to patient’s high-quality imaging for review without the wait. By extending health care providers’ reach beyond hospitals, telemedicine will improve access to quality care, helping patients get treated sooner and reaching specialists otherwise not available.

Because of its huge potential, it’s not surprising that two-thirds of U.S. health care providers have or are developing telehealth programs. According to a study by Market Research Future, the telemedicine market is predicted to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 16.5% from 2017 to 2023, driven mainly by increased demand for healthcare in rural areas.

Bringing effective telemedicine to rural areas will require providing 5G technologies to small communities. While this type of rural connectivity poses challenges for governments, businesses and the telecommunications industry, there have been recent developments that show promise for these technologies.

The world’s most ambitious rural 5G trial

Cisco is leading an ambitious 29-partner consortium called “5G RuralFirst” in the U.K. to address the challenge of rural connectivity. The 5G RuralFirst testbed covers around 2,000 square km in and around the Orkney Isles and extends about 1,000 km from the Orkney Isles north of the Scottish mainland to Somerset in southwest England.

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The goal of the trial is to demonstrate the full potential of 5G and use of the Internet of Things (IoT) in rural communities. Even in developed countries, a lack of pervasive high-speed internet access and mobile coverage can exist. In fact, these “not-spots,” or gaps in mobile coverage, can even exist within our biggest cities. 

With 5G expertise growing rapidly across these testbeds, 5G could soon be available in communities of all sizes. Once this occurs, the benefits to our health care system will be immense.

The future for 5G-powered health care

Today, remote monitoring is largely limited by the capacity of the network to handle data; 5G will enable more reliable connections to facilitate the data transfers workers need to make quick health care decisions remotely for more patients.

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This will have an impact on health care in areas such as unobtrusive monitoring, assisted living for people with chronic conditions, active aging and more. By using IoT devices, health care providers can remotely monitor vital signs, track medications and transfer current data to help staff make faster, more informed decisions.

Predictive analytics, prescriptive analytics and AI data are now being used to perform key functions, including determining diagnoses and deciding treatment plans for patients. For all these, data transfer speeds play a huge role. 5G will support the connection of smartphones and mobile apps, cloud services, devices, sensors, machines and systems that can be used to power big data analytics.

With 5G, data can be distributed at multiple points of care. This will help enable innovations in early remote diagnoses, remote surgeries, smart hospitalization logistics, intervention planning, greater transparency and patient engagement.

Ron Malenfant is lead global architect for Cisco's Global Sales Specialist Organization focused on service provider mobility architectures. Ron’s team works to create mobility, IoT, 5G and 5G enterprise solution development and deployment models at Cisco.