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The next wave of telehealth services is coming, and 5G will power it

Author: Megan Williams

The shutdowns resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have led to a marked increase in interest—and implementation of—telehealth services. But focus too hard on virtual doctor visits and you might miss how telehealth is quietly changing the inner workings of healthcare.

The pandemic has forced the hands of many providers, but the most enduring evolution of telehealth is happening far from front-line patient experience. Progress is emerging at the intersection of 5G and telemedicine, hinting at a future of expanded, decentralized, personalized healthcare.

Where 5G and telehealth services meet

Telehealth covers long-distance clinical care, but its processes also cover administration, clinical interaction and collaboration, and patient and professional health education. These processes rely on technologies such as store-and-forward imaging, terrestrial and wireless communications and streaming media, which are data-intensive.

Many current telehealth solutions run quite well on today's networks. But 5G's critical attributes—particularly its speed and low latency—offer promise for big-data-driven telemedicine applications, such as:

  • Diagnostic image transmission, as the ability to stream large files facilitates remote patient consultation and 3D-rendered clinical team training.
  • Real-time, intelligent patient monitoring, which supports patient safety programs and resource management goals through IoT-assisted asset tracking.
  • Augmented-reality-assisted pre-surgical planning and remote robotic assistance, where ultra-low latency is critical for ensuring precision.
  • Asynchronous video recording, which helps make remote care possible.
  • Accelerated artificial intelligence, which can trawl huge data lakes for real-time insights.

5G could be more revolutionary for the future of telemedicine than the COVID-19 pandemic has been for telehealth services. Realizing that level of change, however, requires healthcare leaders to grasp what keeps telehealth services running.

Safety is the differentiator in communication technology applications in healthcare. What might be the dividing line between irritation and convenience outside of the industry could be life or death in a healthcare context. Lower latency times—below 300 milliseconds, with less than 100 milliseconds the ideal—make telesurgery safer by helping to enhance the degree of precision involved in certain surgical actions, thereby minimizing inaccuracies.

5G should someday provide latency of less than 10 ms, permitting latency-sensitive telehealth applications with basically real-time interactivity. Hospitals and health systems increasingly rely on the availability of real-time data to support the complex communications web linking providers, patients, government entities, insurers and other stakeholders.

But the rush into telemedicine has left healthcare networks vulnerable to threats. Progress in Internet of Medical Things initiatives often puts more mobile devices in play, which complicates endpoint security management. Relaxed firewall rules and eased enforcement discretion around privacy laws to support remote physicians and remote patient monitoring have left sensitive data exposed to cyber criminals. Though new threats will try to exploit 5G’s expansion of the attack surface, the distinctly new architecture and capabilities of 5G networks give operators opportunities to detect and address cyber threats faster and more efficiently than ever before. 5G encrypts signaling traffic and inherits well-proven security algorithms. With secure identity management and a new authentication framework, 5G will also allow more flexible and robust authentication.

Unlocking next gen telehealth technologies

Healthcare will find its way through those issues and into a future where telemedicine technologies can be implemented safely and responsibly while leveraging advancements in 5G to power emerging applications.

Take precision medicine, for example. It's data-intensive, and it's long been limited by the bandwidth and speed constraints of 4G and even 4G LTE, which only operate at about 50 megabits per second, with theoretical limits of 300 Mbps in real-world applications. 5G could open new avenues in precision medicine in addition to stabilizing high-speed streaming video and image data.

5G could also expand the use of virtual and augmented reality, which have novel applications in clinical training and pre-surgical planning, where ultra-low latency is critical to precise surgical education and point of entry.

Smart adoption of 5G should be an exercise grounded in strategy. Instead of aiming for the most cutting-edge telehealth applications, healthcare leaders should examine strategic goals and ask pointed questions:

  • What existing data challenges can be solved or addressed by 5G?
  • Where can current telehealth initiatives be enhanced by faster communication and improved handling of data?
  • Where can we implement 5G technology with the least risk to our security profile?

5G likely won't light up the entire scope of your telehealth efforts, but it'll augment networks that have the capability to support growing applications by supporting the efficiency and effectiveness of your staff and clinicians.

Discover how Verizon's technology options can help you accelerate telehealth adoption.