You’ve probably heard some buzz about 5G, the next generation of cellular network technology. But what exactly is 5G and how will it impact healthcare?

5G: the basics

The G in 5g means it’s a new generation of wireless technology. We had 1G, 2G, 3G, and 4G networks before this. While most generations have technically been defined by their data transmission speeds, each has also been marked by a break in encoding methods, meaning each is incompatible with the previous generation.

5G brings three new aspects: bigger channels (to speed up data transfer), low latency (faster responses), and the ability to connect a lot more devices (for sensors and smart devices).

All US carriers have now launched some form of 5G cellular network. But their advertising belies what will actually be a slow transition. Most locations and devices still use 4G, and that network will be around for a long time. However, in the coming years you can expect to see more and more use of 5G networks with some exciting developments for healthcare.

How will 5G impact healthcare?

The impacts of 5G in healthcare range from the fairly simple to the futuristic. Here are a few examples of how healthcare will benefit from faster data transfer, lower latency, and more connected devices.

1. Telehealth will get easier

The transition to telehealth has sped up dramatically in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As 5G becomes mainstream, you can expect a quick, clear connection and easy videoconferencing nearly anywhere.

2. The Internet of Things will grow

In healthcare, the Internet of Things (IoT) describes a growing network of medical devices and software applications connected through health care technology systems. 5G will make it easier to transfer data quickly from many connected devices, making key IoT functions like remote patient monitoring more widely available.

3. Data will transfer faster

We’re in an era when the amount of health care data is growing at rates never seen before. Whether you’re doing research from huge data pools or just trying to send an X-Ray or MRI, 5G will make data transfer faster. In fact, the technology allows for a theoretical maximum speed that is 100 times faster than it’s 4G predecessor.

4. We’ll see more augmented reality applications

Faster data transfer and device response times will gradually allow for a whole new host of applications. In medicine, this means we can expect to see expanded use of augmented and virtual reality tools for complex medical training scenarios.

5. Surgeries may be done remotely

There’s a whole list of futuristic applications that 5G is likely to enable. One example is 5G’s potential to power robotic surgery tools that eliminate lag time between doctors and patients at a distance. The first effort of this type actually took place in China last year, when 5G aided a surgeon to robotically place a brain stimulation device in a patient with Parkinson’s disease located 1,900 miles away.

The transition will be gradual

The transition to 5G has started but it is far from over. In healthcare, it may take a decade to fully see the benefits of this new network.

Even though 5G is currently available, access to the network is limited. Most smartphones currently in use aren’t compatible with 5G and coverage-wise 5G only exists in a few metro areas. Even where 5G is available, it isn’t always accessible in a consumer-facing capacity. There have also been concerns about misleading 5G branding and worries about 5G cell towers’ short range.

For healthcare, transitioning to 5G will require new devices and infrastructure. “It needs to be done in a methodical way,” Craig Richardville, CIO of SCL Health in Denver recently told TechTarget. “That includes upgrading technology and applications to either speak 5G or disabling the legacy technology piece by piece.”

It will take time for 5G to become a mainstream component of healthcare. But as physicians and industry leaders, it’s important that we start planning and problem-solving now.

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