Connected health is one of the most exciting use cases for 5G with an impressive list of potential benefits for operators, vendors and society. However, with the regulatory complications of dealing with the healthcare industry and the grave implications should something go wrong, can it ever truly meet its potential?

5G is a great prospect for healthcare, opening the potential for wearables to take glucose readings and remotely monitor patients, virtual appointments, and even remote surgery, but experts – and, vitally, the public – still need convincing.

At an event on 31 May at King’s College London set up by Ericsson to discuss the issue, a surgeon performed a short demonstration of an operation performed using a mocked-up 5G network, a connected glove and a robotic arm.

Impressive stuff. Indeed, Prokar Dasgupta, professor of Robotic Surgery and Urological Innovation at King’s, said 5G will address reliability, security and connectivity concerns to make such remote surgery a reality, though he conceded there remains much work to be done in terms of developing the robotics themselves.

However, it is a use case laden with risk. While a stalling 4G network may result in buffering of the TV programme you are trying to stream, a 5G network going down halfway through a robot performing open heart surgery is a very different story.

During the event Ericsson revealed the results of its Healthcare to Homecare study, in which 4,500 consumers and 900 cross-industry experts from five developed telecoms markets were quizzed.

On the consumer side, some 61 per cent described remote robotic surgery as “risky” due to the fact it relied on the internet, the vendor said.

Speaking to Mobile World Live at the King’s event, Hanna Maurer Sibley, head of Network Products, west and central Europe at Ericsson, said the use of 5G for deep healthcare applications will require a great deal of cross-industry collaboration and was unlikely until at least 2030.

“We really encourage all operators and telco industry to talk to healthcare professionals,” she said: “The liability is probably too big for one entity to take by itself. You have to work out what the network can deliver and what are the catastrophic events that can take place. If we have remote surgery and an earthquake and every fibre in the town breaks – whose fault is that?”

“You need to be frank. These are the events you can deliver on and these are the events you can’t deliver on. But there’s too much value in getting healthcare and people connected in order for us to stop at that hurdle. The value and opportunity is too big for us not to explore the opportunities,” she added.

Maria Lema, a researcher at King’s College London’s centre for telecommunications research, believes operators should take a central role in the development of these technologies to ensure their success.

“Operators need to be more than connectivity providers,” Lema said, adding: “It has to be a partnership coming together, and who owns what and who is liable for what has to be ironed out.”

Heart on the sleeve
Although a world where remote operations are commonplace may be distant, 5G is expected to provide a wide range of other healthcare applications. Indeed Ericsson believes these will be among the first services developed and launched in 2020, when many operators aim to launch commercial networks on the next-generation technology.

Wearables, already used in health applications over 4G, will likely continue to provide a number of health related benefits.

According to Ericsson’s study, 50 per cent of consumers with wearables believe healthcare management can be improved by similar devices. Uses vary from fitness trackers to glucose monitoring.

Yet, here security remains a big issue with 46 per cent of the industry experts quizzed in the poll citing it as a potential problem. If these concerns, and limited battery life in many wearable devices, are addressed it looks likely to be the greatest opportunity, at least initially, for 5G.

If the liability issues and technical bugs are ironed out, maybe by 2033 we’ll all be under the virtual knife.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.