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Illustration by Irene Wang

Why 5G is poised to change healthcare

How 5G will tackle some of healthcare’s most pressing issues — data, medical deserts, and assisted therapies.

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The healthcare industry has had its fair share of revolutions, and one more is on the horizon with the emergence of 5G technology. 5G’s combination of faster communication at lower latencies promises the potential to transform healthcare as we know it through giving providers new, more robust datasets from which to work.

It’s not the first time that healthcare has been disrupted by data. At the end of the 19th century, anthrax was ravaging Wöllstein, a small town in rural Germany. Anthrax had already killed hundreds of people and tens of thousands of livestock. How the anthrax spread or propagated remained a mystery, until a local district medical officer named Robert Koch decided to take a look. Koch’s experiments in Wöllstein led him to postulate that diseases were transferable and that specific afflictions were caused by specific microbes. He wasn’t the first to discover germ theory — his contemporary Louis Pasteur had his own breakthroughs on the topic — but his research revolutionized how we understand and treat disease.

We’re on the verge of another healthcare revolution, but this time, it’s being propelled by the powerful waves of 5G communications. “When people finally understood what germs were and how they drove the spread of disease, it revolutionized healthcare,” says Jennifer Esposito, worldwide general manager of health and life sciences at Intel. Esposito, who studied epidemiology and spent more than a decade at GE Healthcare before joining Intel, sees the advent of 5G technology as the beginning of a new chapter in healthcare. “The convergence of technology — 5G and AI and sensors — is going to create this monumental shift that will transform how you understand people’s health, how you deliver treatment, and how you expand access to care and experts.” In healthcare, data is power, and 5G is ready to channel it in exciting new ways.

From detailed patient information to clinical research to the high-resolution images produced during MRIs and CTs, the American healthcare system produces tidal waves of data every day. It’s estimated that by 2020, healthcare will produce 2,314 exabytes of data. (If you want to think about that in gigabytes, it’s 2.314 quadrillion gigabytes, or 2,314 with 12 zeros after it.) If Koch’s research in Wöllstein marked the beginning of medicine’s data age, 5G technology will usher in healthcare’s Big Data age, and the industry will need a new toolkit to harness it.

5G is up to the task. The next generation of wireless communication will be able to operate on something called the millimeter spectrum, i.e. the band between 30 GHz and 300 GHz. (4G LTE operates at much lower frequencies: below 6 GHz. 5G will be able to leverage both low and high frequencies, giving it significant flexibility.) Millimeter waves are much smaller and faster and thus able to transmit large packets of data without clogging the network, an advance that is crucial to the healthcare industry as connectivity becomes central to care.

“Right now, healthcare represents about 30 percent of the world’s data and that’s ever-growing,” says Esposito. “I think the capabilities in 5G and AI are really important today in unleashing insights from this growing store of data so that health systems can finally start to move towards more predictive and proactive use cases for that information.”

Part of the preventative care equation that 5G has the potential to unlock will be the increasing ubiquity of sensor data. The market for wearable tech that monitors everything from your heartbeat to your blood sugar is booming, and caregivers are receiving previously unseen insight into the everyday health of their patients. Healthcare providers will be able to combine it with other data that is known to impact health — think air quality or other environmental stressors — but is currently not available for the average interactions between doctors and patients. That holistic and real-time approach to healthcare is poised to transform experiences across the board, making them more adaptive. This makes possible everything from fine tuning pharmaceutical doses in clinical trials to delivering personalized patient care, digitally. 5G will also open the door to integrating new data sources into personal care, like voice and video inputs, giving healthcare another layer of information from which to draw and new ways for patients to engage in their care.

As Intel’s Esposito puts it, “The ability to leverage this network of sensors, and combine it with other data from the edge as well, so you can have more of a continuous health and wellness monitoring of a patient versus an entirely reactive response to chronic conditions that may decline quickly — that’s a big deal.”

Communities on the geographical fringes of healthcare will also feel the benefits as commercial 5G networks come online. In rural areas with limited access to healthcare and resources, patients with acute or complex conditions must travel long distances to get the care they need. “In a lot of these remote scenarios, you may not be able to do much more than triage a patient and then make a decision about whether or not you need to send them elsewhere,” says Intel’s Esposito. “I think these high-reliability and low-latency networks are going to enable an expansion of access to care for people who would otherwise have to travel great distances to receive it.”

“Latency” is the key term here. 5G networks are going to move large datasets quickly, but they’re also going to perform those labor-intensive tasks without creating network lag. Low-latency in healthcare settings has an especially pronounced advantage, given that medical professionals often need to make decisions on the fly and network-delays could prove problematic. “If you’re delivering treatments in a community hospital or more rural location that is driven by a specialist in another location, you absolutely have to rely on this low-latency connection. It needs to be real time,” says Esposito.

Low-latency networks are also opening up the frontier of “digital therapeutics,” where therapies will be dispensed at home with the help of VR, AR, and mixed reality. Intel has been working on providing VR-assisted therapy for children with autism, and research has already shown that VR can help patients struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues. Researchers at the University of Houston have looked into how virtual reality can help those suffering from alcohol abuse issues by putting them in situations where they can digitally refuse a drink in a low-risk environment, giving people a way to work on checking their urges.

Just as Robert Koch’s 19th-century experiments led to a revolution in medicine, 5G is poised to open a new chapter in healthcare — only this time it’s about millimeter waves, not microbes.

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