Virtual healthcare, real-world impact

Virtual  healthcare, real-world impact
© iStock-TACrafts

The global healthcare market is growing. With an emphasis on digital solutions, it is predicted to exceed $504.4 bn (~€452 bn) by 2025 – bringing streamlined virtual healthcare services.

At the centre of the digital transformation is a reliance on connectivity – virtual healthcare can have a real-world impact. When harnessed properly, fast and dependable network connections can revolutionise everything from drug development and treatments through to social care and preventative therapies. When it comes to network performance, 5G is about to change what we can do and how we can do it.

Of course, with any supposedly ‘game-changing’ technology, it is not simply a matter of the difference in service and systems involved, but how it will be deployed and its subsequent impact on society. So, while 5G has the potential to offer near-zero latency and vast bandwidth, its real significance won’t be fully known until the technology is integrated into existing systems and public services. Only then will its benefits become tangible, measured, and most importantly, felt by organisations and citizens alike.

Taking medicine out into the field

With the population continuing to grow and the people within it living longer, the current system cannot cope. Something needs to change to deliver better patient outcomes, medicine and care in our society. Perhaps the most obvious benefit of improved connectivity for the healthcare industry is remote activity.

Being able to improve the reach, impact and efficiency of healthcare, such as the ability for diagnosis to take place remotely, will be hugely important to the future of the sector. What’s more, the digital revolution can side-step many of the industry’s usual problems – including physician shortages, increased patient demand and evolving policy landscapes.

Even today, we are already seeing remote diagnosis systems being put in place, including one example by University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust – with an initial demonstration of a remote-controlled ultrasound scan being carried over a public 5G network.

Using the technology, a paramedic in the field can perform an ultrasound scan on a patient under the remote guidance of a clinician, who is able to interpret the ultrasound image in real-time. The ultrasound sensor is manipulated locally by the paramedic under the direction of the clinician, who controls a joystick which sends control signals over the live 5G network to a robotic or ‘haptic’ glove worn by the paramedic. The glove creates small vibrations that direct the paramedic’s hand to where the clinician wants the ultrasound sensor to be moved. When combined with real-time audio and video feeds, it provides a rich and immersive experience. The clinicians reach is extended miles out into the surrounding area without moving from their seat.

The ultrasound imaging is relayed over a high bandwidth 5G connection, allowing the clinician to view the image as the examination is being performed. 5G is integral to this; without the higher bandwidth and increased speed the ultrasound image would not be able to be sent. Similarly, the glove’s haptic feedback process requires a low-latency network in order to be used accurately – again, something that is only possible through 5G.

The ability for paramedics to perform ultrasound scans in the field – ahead of the patient’s arrival at the hospital – can’t be underestimated. With expert clinicians able to review findings remotely, the time for patients to be diagnosed is significantly reduced, with the potential to cut down unnecessary ambulance journeys and emergency department visits. This will in turn improve the overall experience for patients while freeing up ambulance resources and reducing pressure on emergency departments. Faster diagnosis can also mean that patients don’t have to be triaged and their waiting time in Emergency Departments is dramatically reduced, meaning better patient outcomes and improved efficiency for the hospital.

The potential impact is huge: ultrasonography, for example, is the NHS’ second most common diagnostic test, and in the last year more than 9.5 million were carried out across England.

At the same time, an average of more than 400,000 patients attend University Hospital Birmingham’s Emergency Departments each year, 113,500 of which are brought in using an ambulance. The time saved in allowing doctors to remotely diagnose issues and dispense treatment instructions could be the difference between life and death.

Information at your fingertips

Similarly, having access to the right information at the right time can also save lives. One of the biggest benefits that 5G will deliver for the virtual healthcare sector is also the simplest: ensuring that staff have all the data they need, when they need it.

Ultrasounds, X-Rays, MRIs – each of these are typically reliant on large files. As they move from specialist to specialist, with each adding their own notes to the files, they can quickly expose the shortcomings of all but the largest networks. When bandwidth is low, data transfer is slowed down – meaning that patients must wait longer for treatment and clinicians can’t see as many patients. With a 5G infrastructure, medical imagery can be sent quickly and without a compromise on quality.

Additionally, the increased capacity of 5G means that more data can be collected, analysed, distributed and acted on – helping to add new treatments, greater service efficiencies and spot previously unseen patterns. It also allows for the network to be subdivided into slices, producing networks within networks with enhanced performance, priority and security; all of which is used to improve the NHS’ wider operations.

Constant care

5G will also be critical in the collection of this data – with wearable technology set to play a big role in the future of virtual healthcare. Demand has been rising for wearables as doctors increasingly consider them ‘must-haves’ when it comes to helping patients better engage with their own health. The latest forecasts predict that wearables – including health trackers and remote patient monitoring devices – will become ‘must haves’ by 2023, with over $20bn (~€18 bn) spent annually.

As wearables become a standard part of a patient’s treatment plan, careful monitoring and analysis of their results will be critical – with real-time feedback helping to alert clinicians to potential danger signs during, or even before, medical incidents.

Of course, this relies on a vast mesh of constantly communicating sensors, an innovation only truly viable through the larger bandwidth and heightened reliability of 5G. At present, hospitals are hampered in their use of remote monitoring technology – restricted by the inadequate network that can’t handle the level of data, and the speed at which it needs to be processed. The knock-on effect is that slow networks mean staff can’t get the real-time data they need to make the quick, decisive decisions they need to save lives. However, with the launch of 5G, networks are improved, and data can flow quickly and easily – giving doctors all the information they need to ensure medical judgements are well-founded and strategic.

What’s more, this kind of pre-emptive and preventative treatment can help reduce hospital costs and shorten convalescence – freeing up hospital beds for future patients.

Have no doubt, over time the impact of 5G on healthcare will be enormous – driving new medical processes that will allow collaboration between specialists at an unprecedented scale. Experts will no longer be hampered by geography, allowing consultants to be brought in to help with care whenever possible.

For patients, 5G will be a central tool in delivering a smarter, faster and more streamlined virtual healthcare experience. With increased bandwidth, massive capacity, and zero latency, we can expect to see virtual healthcare operations speed-up – a crucial improvement in an industry where every second counts.

Danny Longbottom
Director of Local
Government & Health

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