From High Speeds To AR in Ambulances, 5G Is Changing the Way We Think About Healthcare

February 24, 2021

Written by Caio Castro
Paremedics have more chances to save lives using BT's connected ambulance
CATEGORY: Exclusives
TAGS: 5G, 6G, AR, healthcare, VR

An ambulance is dispatched to rescue the victim of an accident. A paramedic places the person in the vehicle and wears an augmented reality headset to treat the patient. Using a 5G connection, clinicians at the hospital analyse the images, instruct the paramedic, and begin to prepare for when the ambulance arrives.

Such a sci-fi scene could be just one more futuristic claim of how the internet will change healthcare, but while you read this story, it is actually happening in the United Kingdom.

In 2019, British telco BT began experiments with the connected ambulance, a structure comprising a high-definition, 180-degree camera placed on the vehicle’s internal ceiling, whose images clinicians at University Hospitals Birmingham can see.

While it will take time until this technology is widely available, the connected ambulance offers a sneak peek at what the world could look like in a not-so-distant future.

“Clinicians have real-time information coming back, not only from the scene inside the ambulance but also some of the patient information, like their vital signs. Then the doctors at the hospital can use the VR headset as well as a big screen to actually fully immerse themselves into what is happening within the ambulance,” Keiron Salt, Health CIO at BT, explained in an interview with 6GWorld™.

Experts say that the ambulance is just one of the numerous examples of use cases that 5G brings to the table. Still, there is a whole world of possibilities to explore.

“I think about 5G like the App Store. Now you realise how those apps are used today, from banking to commerce to ordering your groceries to healthcare. At the time that Steve Jobs launched the platform, no one could have predicted all the different apps that we would use today,” said Rod Cruz, General Manager of Healthcare Solutions at AT&T.

“That is the analogy I put in front of our customers; to think of it [5G use cases in healthcare] as the App Store, and over time we will continue to add more and more capabilities to it,” Cruz added.

High resolution, better latency, faster service

Remote AR or VR applications are only possible because of 5G’s low latency, perhaps one of the most celebrated advancements this technology offers.

“We saw the extra bandwidth, the resilience, and the low latency of 5G being really important in some of those examples. You can imagine two clinicians working along and the low latency bringing together that dialogue in real-time. The low latency of 5G in that context is critical because the communication is instant across the network,” Salt pointed.

This low delay, combined with high data throughput and fast speeds, is what specialists expect to set the stage for the ultra-connected healthcare of the future.

One example is the ground-breaking amount of information that can be shared within a hospital or a clinic using 5G.

“If you think about anything in the radiology department, any MRI, PACS image, they don’t have to be just single images and pics, but also videos. The way you move those files around the system is what could be enabled by 5G. Think about the bandwidth and the latency to move that information,” Rod Cruz explained.

The duo of low latency and high data throughput is already revamping medicine. The Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine, a clinic for cancer research and treatment from the University of Southern California, processes 3D images of ten gigabytes each, a workload that 5G connectivity has enabled.

The Institute also uses artificial intelligence to overlay images of other cells to help identify cellular abnormalities or defects that may be missed with the human eye.

However, the emergence of 5G does not mean other wireless protocols are in danger – on the contrary. While 4G will be around for a long time, hospitals will keep using WiFi on a regular basis. It all depends on how you use the network.

“I think this co-existence is really important. People made investments in particular channels [in hospitals], so they will want to use this network as well. We see that healthcare has been moving into the community, into pharmacies, supermarkets. Obviously 5G is a key enabler of that, but there will be a harmony so WiFi and 5G can deliver the right outcomes,” Keiron Salt said.

The power of being anywhere

Both experts agree that augmented, virtual, and mixed reality will play a significant role in healthcare in the coming years, and not only for the health professionals. These technologies are already providing patients with more humane treatment, especially seniors.

AT&T conducted research with Vitas, a hospice institute in the United States, to check how hospitals can use cognitive behavioural and distraction therapy to provide relief to patients nearing the end of their lives.

AT&T and Vitas conducted research to find whether VR could help patients nearing the end of their lives/Credit: AT&T

Researchers found that the patients’ sensations when using extended reality were similar to those opium medicines would generate.

“The research indicates the respiratory rate, the heart rate, their anxiety levels or stress levels diminish if you just put on a virtual reality, augmented reality, extended reality headset and have the patient be walking through a beach or taking a meditative walk through the woods,” he explained.

“If you think about this further, as this type of technology becomes more sophisticated, you’re going to have maybe some personalised content. Maybe social media platforms could take you back to your wedding day or the day your daughter was born or your first date with your loved one.”

Here’s where 5G’s low latency will be paramount. The lower the delay, the less risk of nausea. Cruz explained that a latency higher than ten milliseconds is enough to cause those unwanted sensations.  

Is 6G the future of healthcare?

While the experts believe we are far from advancements like commercial remote surgeries, for instance, there is a consensus that we need to first test 5G capabilities before jumping to the next generation of mobile internet.

“I feel that the latency, the bandwidth we are getting with 5G is outpacing even the most creative ideas now in terms of innovation,” Cruz added. “I think that we’ve got a lot of runways to go fill up before I can answer and go ‘Oh, my gosh, I wish I had 6G’.”

Keiron Salt takes a similar approach. According to him, the healthcare industry is focusing more on improving today’s use cases.

“It is quite a difficult one to envisage the future [of 5G] in five to ten years. The opportunities that we see around remote triage in a connected ambulance, the ability to use wearables, to scale the level of information you can get from individuals, they are all exciting developments that we are going to see in the near term,” Salt said. “By providing the [right] infrastructure and capabilities, I think we will see lots of really exciting use cases that we’ve not even thought about.”

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