Many predict 5G will be game-changing for healthcare, providing organizations with more connection power and faster broadband speeds.
One area where 5G could be especially groundbreaking: remote robotic-assisted surgery.
With the technology, surgeons could potentially perform remote, across-the-globe procedures that are impossible today, according to a report from Fitch Solutions Macro Research, a unit of Fitch Group. Robot-assisted surgery remains a popular alternative to traditional surgery, providing better accuracy and precision.
There also is a growing demand from patients and clinics for minimally invasive surgery coupled with improving procedure rates more generally, which can be provided by surgical robots. This can, in turn, reduce pressure on healthcare systems, according to Fitch Solutions.
The robotic surgery market is currently valued at more than $3 billion and is expected to surpass $7 billion by 2025, according to data from iData Research.
The potential for this market is driving medical device manufacturers to invest heavily in medical robotic systems. Medtronic acquired Mazor Robotics, a developer of spine surgery guidance systems, for about $1.64 billion in September.
Johnson & Johnson dove deeper into robotic surgery with a $3.4 billion deal to acquire Auris Health, the Silicon Valley designer of endoscopic hardware aimed at lung cancer.
Intuitive Surgical currently dominates the surgical robotics market and claims every 36 seconds its da Vinci robotic system helps a surgeon perform better. The company's robots have been used in 5 million minimally invasive surgeries as of the end of 2017, with 43,000 trained surgeons and 4,400 systems installed including in 100% of the top hospitals for cancer, gynecology, gastroenterology and urology, according to the company.
Most robotic platforms are intended to streamline the surgical process, increase safety and reduce complications, often through a minimally invasive approach, according to the Fitch Solutions report. "Currently, robotic surgery is utilized in few countries and in advanced medical facilities; however, surgical robotics are evolving so that they are more widely accessible," the authors of the report said.
Current robotic surgeries also require the surgeon to be located in the immediate vicinity of the patient where they can control the robot via a monitor. Surgical robotics manufacturers are increasingly incorporating 5G capabilities into these devices, which could vastly expand how these systems are used.
"With the adoption of 5G networks, which allow near-instantaneous communication due to low latency, surgeons will be able to perform remote procedures that are impossible today due to geographic limitations or critical timing requirements such as blunt trauma/accident injuries requiring operative procedures in ambulances and in war zones," the authors of the report said.
The use of robotic-assisted surgery also could help patients in remote locations without surgical specialists or in developing countries where per capita specialists are limited, the report said.
A surgeon in China has already performed the world's first remote operation using 5G technology, according to PC Mag, citing local reports from China. The doctor in the southeastern province of Fujian used the next-generation network to control robotic arms in a remote location 30 miles away. The surgery was made possible by the extremely low latency of 5G.
A current drawback for the mass rollout of this technology and a guarantee in a wider service usage is the requirement of haptic feedback.
"In the past surgical robots have not had haptic feedback but that is changing as manufacturers understand the importance and incorporate it into their devices," the authors of the report said.
Engineers and surgeons at the University of Naples Federico II in Italy, using Intuitive Surgical's da Vinci Research Kit, have now developed a force sensor for the da Vinci trocars that provides real-time haptic feedback to the user, according to the report.
"The surgical instruments stay as they are and don’t have to be modified in any way, making it easy to introduce the technology into future surgical robots," Fitch Solutions said.
The report forecasts that 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.
The first large surgical robotics company to incorporate haptic feedback will capture a large market share which will likely result in greater competition in the surgical robotics industry as well.
5G infrastructure is still in its infancy around the globe, and that currently limits the availability of the technology. In the U.S., AT&T, Verizon and other carriers are starting to launch 5G networks this year, with 5G services for business already rolling out in some markets.
Rush University Medical Center and AT&T announced in January that Rush would be the first hospital in the nation to move to 5G.
As the technology improves, so will the scope for these surgical robots, Fitch Solutions said.
Moving forward, surgical robotic manufacturers will have to work alongside telecommunications providers to ensure new systems are designed to be able to keep up with the technological innovations that are taking place, the authors of the report said.