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5G and telemedicine: Hospitals should take an individualized approach

Author: Megan Williams

A pandemic has forced healthcare into telemedicine adoption, generating volumes of speculation about what the future holds.

The lingering challenge is that telemedicine is simultaneously a horizon that's bigger than COVID-19 and also one that requires small-scale execution. This is where the opportunities of 5G and telemedicine converge—supporting hospitals in building reliable networks that fit their specific and evolving needs while empowering the healthcare enterprise in delivering superior care, during a pandemic and beyond.

Telemedicine's potential is evolving on multiple fronts by living up to its definition—distributing healthcare services and processes away from a central physical location, traveling across the enterprise through electronic and telecommunication technologies. 5G could facilitate the possibilities of this new arm of healthcare with fast downloads, the easier transmission of large medical images and a clearer path to complex AI applications, along with augmented and virtual reality.

A broad horizon of 5G opportunity

What's most compelling about the promise of 5G and healthcare is that it transcends a pandemic. The choices hospital leadership makes today to right-size their approach to telemedicine could easily vault them toward other longstanding strategic goals. Here are some examples. 

An improved patient experience through low-latency video conferencing

Telehealth may be emerging from a rocky history of reimbursement and regulatory challenges, but a simple fact remains—it's materializing as a pillar of the patient experience. A 2019 survey published by Massachusetts General Hospital revealed that 68% of patients rate their telemedicine visits as 10 out of 10, only dipping to a nine because of technical difficulties.

While hospitals may have little control over how 5G is applied on the patient end, the benefits of low-latency video conferencing (e.g. a real-time experience that more closely mirrors their in-person visits) can help minimize those technical difficulties on the hospital side and keep the telemedicine experience in line with patient expectations like the ones studied by Massachusetts General.

Healthier revenues through remote patient monitoring

Along with security challenges and technical barriers, one of the most prominent impediments to telemedicine has been reimbursement. Years ago, telemedicine simply wasn't worth the tech spend if a hospital risked its cash flows in the process. Medicare began paying for some telemedicine services as far back as the late '90s but began expanding its approach during the pandemic, reimbursing telemedicine visits at the same rate as in-person. CMS has also recently announced that the policy shift may become permanent, strengthening the business case for 5G and healthcare on the hospital side.

Realization of remote healthcare through wearables

For all the attention they've received over the years, wearables have yet to find their rightful place as front-row participants in modern healthcare. 5G, though, has the potential to change that.

Wearables are a key piece of the puzzle in improving patient management efficiency in hospitals. The applications list is almost endless, ranging from detection of patient health-state parameters to supporting mobility in patients, all by facilitating data processing and remote transmission to healthcare providers, even within the walls of a hospital. A primary barrier, though, has been the onslaught of data that these devices generate. With sub-gigabit levels of throughput capacity, 5G can serve as the bridge to a new area of remote care for hospitals around the country.

For example, rural health systems have long struggled with a "technology gap" in processing and analyzing growing amounts of data. These analytics require systems pulling from multiple disparate databases. Wearables only increase this load as well as costs and stress on existing IT infrastructure and staff. 5G can be the stepping stone that equips these already-strained hospitals to better manage throughput and close gaps in their strategic tech goals.

The business of implementing 5G will be individual

When implementing 5G, hospitals and integrated delivery networks will benefit from letting the application drive their decisions. Hospital leadership will need to identify their needs and innovation goals to find the optimal opportunities for 5G technology to improve speed and reduce latency.

Instead of implementing 5G across the entire healthcare enterprise, it might be more beneficial to focus on specific departments—like a pediatric oncology program that requires streaming large, dense diagnostic imaging files between collaborating providers. Hospitals could incorporate anything from launching an augmented reality surgical program to facilitating remote robotics initiatives, even supporting faster adoption of AI and edge computing.

Preparing teams for a 5G rollout

To perform a successful 5G rollout, you'll need the right team members. At the very minimum, this should include buy-in from the financial leadership, the clinicians using the technology and your IT department (covering the new network systems' deployment, training and security).

This team will be instrumental not only in finalizing the most viable use cases for 5G success but also ensuring that implementation meets both short- and long-term needs. Consider the following questions to see if it's the right investment for you:

  • Where are our greatest in-building opportunities to optimize our approach to telemedicine through 5G (AI transformation, IoMT-enabled asset tracking, collaborative technologies issues, store-and-forward services, facilitating high network availability and resiliency, etc.)?
  • What is the potential and implication for our use of devices tied to the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT)?
  • What security threats could we face, and how can we prevent them from occurring?
  • How will implementation of 5G affect interoperability (EHR, quality and core measures), payer systems and beyond)?

Take a look at other hospitals that have used 5G and telemedicine to connect across distances, simplify workflows and enable collaboration.