According to WHO, about 40% of the countries have less than one physician per 1,000 people and less than 18 hospital beds per 10,000 people (data: 2005-2015). The COVID-19 crisis and the subsequent overwhelming of the healthcare systems across the world have only highlighted this stark reality.
The crisis has also stressed the need for virtual health consultations that enable social distancing when dealing with rampant contagion. We believe wireless technologies can help us better prepare and fight the crisis. Over the past years, technology has transformed our lives with 2G enabled mobile calls, SMS and MMS, and Internet browsing on the phone with 3G. With even higher speed and lower latency, 4G today allows HD video streaming. Given the progressive trend, the advent of 5G can only be expected to disrupt every industry imaginable and we feel healthcare sector – armed with this technology - is primed for disruption. Additionally, increased demand from rural areas and government initiatives especially in the case of current pandemic situations will also drive the growth for telemedicine going forward.
So far, poor data quality and transmission lag have been the biggest challenges to offering telemedicine in rural areas. This we believe will change with the advent of 5G. The current generation of cellular transmission technology can take care of many of the problems preventing telehealth from reaching full potential. For healthcare organizations seeking digital transformation, 5G will emerge as a game-changer with seamless transmission of large data files and enablement of technologies like augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and spatial computing.
There are three major ways 5G will revolutionize healthcare through telemedicine:
Medical data at fingertips: Today, patients bring manually screened images like X-rays and scan reports to a specialist, delaying the start of treatment. In case of a second or third opinion, the treatment is likely to be further postponed. With 5G architecture in place, test results — essentially a large data file — can be sent immediately to a doctor. The doctor, in turn, can be ready with a treatment plan even before meeting the patient after a prescribed test. The speed of 5G will permit high-quality video interactions between doctors and patients, which could be critical under certain circumstances. Infectious pandemics like COVID-19 call for contactless treatment. There is need to imagine and create machine tests for the patients with reports directly compiled in their medical records. This would help physicians access the reports without coming into physical contact with the patient.
Real-time monitoring: Currently, physicians spend 30 minutes to a couple of days studying the vitals of a patient before initiating treatment. However, during medical emergencies, they are pressed for time. A combination of 5G and Internet of Things (IoT) would enable real-time, automated collection of patient data without them visiting or admitting to a clinic. Additionally, medical data — collected over months or years — can be stored in individual health profiles. This would not only offer a real-time view of the patient condition, allowing immediate prescription of medication even if the patient is miles away, but also access to reliable medical history. Wearables would bring down hospital cost and patient spend making treatments more effective through monitoring that goes beyond manual supervision. In the event of pandemics like COVID-19, keeping an eye on patient data from a distance is of utmost importance. Medication can be administered while a prospective patient is quarantined at home. This would help doctors efficiently use resources and pinpoint asymptomatic cases.
Expanded reach of healthcare: In a country like India, treating patients in remote areas with near-zero healthcare infrastructure is challenging. While temporary hospitals are built in public spaces like stadiums and parks, such infrastructure is rendered useless if the count of doctors remains constant. The 5G connectivity would help doctors administer virtual treatment through AR, VR, data-capturing equipment and 4K 360° panoramic images. This will also allow doctors to tend to more patients than they could in person. More people, especially those in areas that are now cut off from quality healthcare because of geographical and financial constraints, will be able to access specialized treatment through virtual clinics. A doctor in the US would be able to perform an endoscopic surgery on a patient in a mountain village in Uttarakhand, thanks to the low latency of 5G.
Among the other exciting possibilities unleashed by the technology combination of 5G, IoT, and AI, are next-level preventive and personalized care, enabled through real-time, customized monitoring of patients. Used in conjunction with other technologies, 5G will not only bring about significant improvement in the quality of healthcare — irrespective of the location of the patient — but also over time cut down the often-prohibitive cost of healthcare.