The newest generation of cellular technology stands to have a dramatic effect on the lives of many as it will impact a number of devices and industries. The benefits offered from 5G will dramatically improve connectivity for technologies that rely on cellular networks for access to networks and other devices. The advantages of the Internet of Things will become more pronounced with 5G driving the system.
Within the medical space, the emergence of the technology couldn’t have come at a better time. While in development for more than 10 years, it is finally being introduced in new technologies hitting the market today. As a result of the pandemic, the use of telehealth was accelerated rapidly and is unlikely to return to pre-COVID levels in terms of adoption. Having 5G capabilities will further enhance the benefits of this technology.
To provide greater insight on what 5G will likely mean to healthcare as well as medical device manufacturers, Jennifer Samproni, chief technology officer of Health Solutions at Flex, spoke with MPO about a number of factors. She addresses the adoption of the technology by both healthcare organizations and device makers, security concerns, and the array of benefits the system offers.
Sean Fenske: Can you start with an explanation of what 5G actually is?
Jennifer Samproni: 5G stands for the fifth generation of mobile communications technology. With each generation’s new technology and standards, there have been small improvements in transmission speed and network capacity. But 5G is more than just another generation. It represents a big leap forward in cellular technology.
With the first generation of cellular connectivity, phone users in the 80s experienced frequent dropped calls, poor sound quality, expensive terminal prices, and short battery life.
Under development since 2010, 5G will provide peak data rates >10 Gbps, which is ~100x faster than its 4G predecessor. In addition to faster data transmission rates, this generation uses less power, can provide ultra-low latency in the range of 1.0 ms, 99.9999 percent connection reliabilities, operation in high speed mobility (up to 500 Km/h), and greater connectivity capacity (up to 1 million devices per square km). The latter is particularly important since the number of devices connected to the network increases by approximately 25 percent year-over-year.
Fenske: What is the impact of using 5G with medical devices?
Samproni: 5G is a key enabling technology for digital health and the Internet of Things (IOT) and is quickly being incorporated into a variety of medical devices. Wireless technology enables connectivity among devices in the hospital, at home, and wherever there is a point of need.
5G technology is already unlocking new scenarios for telehealth, real-time patient monitoring, remote surgery, and remote device management. Whereas 4G has been capably supporting basic telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic, 5G has the potential to add augmented and virtual reality as well as sensors for real-time patient diagnosis and monitoring.
Further, 5G-enabled wearable devices can transmit large packets of data throughout the day, driving improved patient outcome through continuous remote monitoring. Similarly, IOT applications can run on 4G, but telesurgery can be made possible only by combining the 5G’s single-digit millisecond latency, ultra-reliability, and massive bandwidth.
Fenske: How will 5G impact the growth of telehealth?
Samproni: Whereas we are still approximately five years away from large scale 5G deployment, China has already started to use 5G in their smart medical strategy and clinical practice at several top hospitals. During the pandemic, 5G-powered telemedicine, remote CT scanning, and remote ultrasound testing were utilized to address the shortage of medical personnel in China’s worst-hit areas and avoid person-to-person transmission of infection.
With its ability to deliver reliable, robust connectivity; fast transmission speed for large data files; and device connection capacity, 5G is the best candidate to enrich the cloud-based services and expand the offering in connected solutions. Along with AI, 5G empowers the Internet of Things for medical devices (Internet of Medical Things or IOMT) and it makes it possible for ECGs to be remotely monitored or vitals from a wearable device to be simultaneously reviewed by patient and doctor in real time.
Fenske: Does 5G make it easier to incorporate medical technologies into mobile devices?
Samproni: The 5G adoption will touch mobile phones as well as portable medical devices. Compared to 4G, some estimates suggest 5G could use 90 percent less energy per bit with the new introduced sleep modes (the radio is on much less time to transmit the same amount of data) and the much higher data rate. Also, the integration of iSIM technology can enable smaller form factor devices, simplify commissioning and subscription services, and increase embedded security, making the life of the end user much easier.
Further, in home healthcare and remote patient monitoring, connected medical device systems rely on dual SIM cards from multiple wireless carriers to prevent disconnects. iSIM technology will enable more than one carrier profile in the same embedded silicon, thus reducing the device cost and complexity.
Fenske: Are there security concerns with healthcare data and 5G (any more or less than the challenges that exist today)?
Samproni: Network security and data privacy are paramount in a healthcare setting. An AT&T report identified three main risks: 1) a larger attack surface due to the substantial increase in connectivity, 2) greater number of devices on the network, and 3) the need to extend security policies to the devices that have 5G access. In response to these concerns, the technology is deploying safety measures with extreme attention. If we look at legacy solutions based on WIFI or on mobile phones as intermediate relay points, 5G offers a stronger system from a security standpoint, and incorporates new technologies like iSIM with integrated secure elements on silicon. Even with the technological safeguards in place, healthcare organizations will need a plan to leverage 5G’s new infrastructure and security features to ensure a stable and secure solution.
Fenske: What will 5G mean for hospitals that may be slow to purchase newer equipment? Do they gain any benefit?
Samproni: As the wireless industry continues to invest in 5G networks to support new use cases, healthcare provider access to the technology will increase. Some large hospitals have started proactively investing in 5G infrastructure to realize the savings sooner. For example, it costs $1200 to $2000 for each cable to connect computers to a hospital network, with as much as $1M per building. 5G can cut that amount in half, offsetting the initial investment over time. Slower equipment upgrades simply mean the cost savings and technologies that require faster transmission speed/network capacity can be implemented at a later date.
It will require some time to change the equipment base, but we see a good potential starting from upgrades in surgery rooms for robotic-assisted equipment. This will require a reliable and low latency connection with a remote doctor, trained and able to operate with high level of experience on the device.
Fenske: Do you have any additional comments you’d like to share based on any of the topics we discussed or something you’d like to tell medical device manufacturers?
Samproni: Smart connected medical devices, combined with AI and 5G, underpin a revolution in personalized, predictive, and remote health solutions over broad geographic regions. As medical device manufacturers, we have the ability to support the transformation of healthcare and patient experience by developing a deep understanding of these emergent enabling technologies and incorporating it into our solution ecosystem.
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