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Here's how 5G can support health care's digital transformation

By Andrew Rebhan

April 23, 2019

    Editor's note: This post was updated on May 30, 2019.

    We live in an increasingly hyper-connected world, and fifth-generation (5G) technology is going to play a key role. All major wireless providers are already working to launch 5G networks, which are expected to offer extremely low latency and higher throughput to support connectivity across a range of devices. 5G is also expected to be up to 100 times faster than existing networks, opening up new avenues of innovation across industries (e.g., self-driving cars, smart homes and cities, robotics and drones).

    Short-term applications

    The rise of digital health systems has happened with the help of current 4G LTE technologies, and we expect 5G to support critical next steps in the full shift toward digital transformation in health care. However—in the short term—we see 5G as an incremental improvement over 4G networks, especially until most of your network-connected devices are compatible. 5G is going to take years to become mainstream, but that adoption process should be noticeable by 2020. That said, there are a few potential health care applications for 5G worth noting:

    • Telemedicine: Functions like telemedicine require high reliability and availability to support real-time, high-quality video when patients are interacting with their care teams. With 5G, health systems can also leverage mobile networks (versus traditional wired networks) to handle appointments, helping to drive on-demand care with greater coverage.

    • Remote patient monitoring: The internet of things (IoT) offers plenty of opportunities to improve patient care, but with potentially billions of devices and sensors to connect, existing connectivity networks are due for an upgrade. 5G will alleviate concerns about IoT device connectivity, and should expand network capacity to handle real-time data coming from monitoring devices and wearables for proactive decision making.

    • Emerging technology: There are a number of new technologies that are testing the limits of existing network speed and access that could benefit from 5G's high bandwidth and low latency. For example, 5G can enable providers to use virtual and augmented reality to train clinicians using virtual simulations, or can immerse a patient in a digital world to help with pain management in the recovery room.

    How to prepare for 5G

    Though it will be several years until a critical mass of 5G-ready devices and networks are available and ready to support new applications in health care, here are some steps you can take to prepare:

    • Prepare for edge computing: 5G and IoT sensors have the potential to generate enormous amounts of data. Edge computing moves some of the processing, summarization, and triage of events from centralized data centers out to edge devices, either in the cloud or in the user's environment. Edge computing helps both to reduce data movement delays between the user and a centralized hub, as well as to distil data streams down to summaries or higher-level interpretations of events. 5G will move intelligence closer to the consumers and users, increasing decision-making speed and allowing for more responsive applications.

    • Move towards the cloud: Edge computing and increased use of mobile networking will move more traffic from your intranet to public networks. Cloud infrastructure providers are better positioned to deliver robust connectivity than on-premise data centers.

    • Address security and privacy from the start: 5G will magnify the number of IoT devices connected to your network, which consequently will expose more data to security threats and raise new privacy concerns. Your team will need to stay vigilant and be more involved in performance monitoring and keeping vendor partners accountable.

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