PARTNER FEATURE: At Huawei’s Global Mobile Broadband Forum 2020, Lu Qingjun, Director of Development at the China-Japan Friendship Hospital and Director of the National Telemedicine and Connected Health Center in China, explored the 5G medical applications available today, future trends, and how Covid-19 has changed attitudes towards telemedicine.

A shot in the arm for healthcare
5G promises a new health ecosystem, one that can meet patient and provider needs accurately, efficiently, conveniently, cost-effectively, and at scale. 5G networks are poised to transform all critical components of healthcare, a transformation that’s especially meaningful today given how the pandemic has placed tremendous stress on healthcare systems around the world.

Since the early days of 5G trials, the technology’s potential to transform the medical sector has been frequently cited in scenarios ranging from remote diagnosis to remote surgery. In a GSMA intelligence survey of mobile operators in early 2020, 62 percent of respondents cited the telehealth and telemedicine as sectors offering long-term business opportunities, 12 percent higher than security and almost as high as data analytics systems.

Although surgical procedures performed remotely over mobile networks are still likely many years away, plenty of applications using modern network technology and systems are being rolled out globally, alongside many other trial projects.

Lu believes that 5G has the power to solve many of the problems that have prevented the wider uptake of telemedicine. “In China, telemedicine has been studied for 20 years, but communications technology has remained a big problem. However, 5G will solve a lot of the legacy connectivity problems.”

Potentially game-changing use cases for 5G-based applications tend to involve AI and big data, for example, the way professionals and patients will be able to access vital pieces of medical information such as the results of CT and MRI scans. In the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, 5G eMBB technology will enable remote healthcare support and reduce patient exposure to contagions by minimising in-person visits to doctors or healthcare facilities. For patients who can’t easily travel to healthcare providers, 5G will allow the provider to visit them via immersive telepresence systems.

High-quality 5G connectivity systems can boost collaboration between medical professionals, allowing them to collaborate on things like scans to improve diagnosis and patient care. “5G technology will support terminal-to-terminal communications, making communications easier and real-time,” Lu says. “It will make telemedicine accepted by both the doctors and patients.”

According to Lu, the Covid-19 pandemic has made people realize the advantages of telemedicine and of reducing the risk of spreading the virus by traveling to hospitals. “We can use telemedicine to get help from skilled specialists to local hospitals. [Patients] can stay at home and through the Internet [they] get prescriptions. Medicine can be delivered to their front door.”

In a project supported by Huawei at the National Telemedicine Center, a remote diagnosis system designed for fighting Covid-19 was set up earlier this year. It connected 147 hospitals covering 108 counties and 18 cities, aiding collaboration between professionals, allowing better resource allocation, and providing treatment guidance by experts. The system made high-quality medical resources available to remote areas, facilitated remote checks on patients in isolation wards, and powered online workshops with coronavirus experts. Patients and medical centers in towns and counties could get help from large hospitals, boosting response capabilities and decreasing the risk of cross infections due to patient transfer.

Rise of AI
Alongside the advancement of health IoT networks and devices, the possibility of smart, data-driven algorithms in healthcare will also increase. 5G infrastructure will make it much easier and more reliable to use AI software to analyse real-time patient data sent to cloud platforms. In fact, AI will truly arrive with the advent of 5G technology.

AI allows doctors to analyse individual patient statuses in real-time, offering improved diagnosis and healthcare delivery regardless of where the patient is located. This provides cost savings, reduces the time taken to access care, and provides flexibility for the end user.

Analysing medical images is a daunting task due to the high volume of data. Clinicians have to interpret their complexity and dynamic changes, which can be time-consuming and prone to errors due to visual fatigue. Recent advances in machine learning systems have demonstrated that AI can extract more information from images with higher reliability and accuracy, and identify features that are not be easily detectable by the human eye. Applications range from analysing large numbers of images from screening programs to enhanced diagnosis of specific problems such as fractures.

The large amounts of data used in real-time machine learning require ultra-reliable high-bandwidth networks, particularly if clinicians wish to access data from mobile devices.  By switching to high-capacity 5G networks, healthcare organisations can use machine learning systems to provide the best care possible from wherever they are in the hospital or clinic.

“5G networks can support the precise real-time transmission of massive data, guaranteeing the accuracy and reliability of medical data through AI systems,” says Lu. 5G and AI will remove obstacles for hospitals to interconnect and enable advanced diagnosis and treatment experiences to be shared between large and small hospitals, which will benefit underserved rural areas. It’s often difficult for medical facilities in rural areas to install and use AI applications due to financial and technical limitations, but 5G will enable them to connect with bigger hospitals to make use of their AI applications.

Tough roadblocks in healthcare
Although the advantages are clear, many barriers remain. Lu is currently involved in a national study project in China, which seeks to address these concerns and define how to help care providers use 5G to deliver medical applications. “On the hospital side we have a big problem with connecting the old equipment to the 5G network,” Lu says, highlighting the need to add 5G communication modules into existing equipment used to perform procedures such as CT and MRI scans.

ICT platforms could allow easy access to real-time information by doctors, managers, and patients, and save time and money due to better collaboration and efficiency.

One of the current challenges in 5G is the lack of concrete specifications. It isn’t just a faster and bigger version of previous generations; instead, 5G will present a set of services that can integrate M2M, audio and video services, and other services spread over a much larger spectrum range than any previous network generation.

“In the future most treatment systems will be connected to 5G as the network connection becomes real-time,” says Lu. “The family doctor can connect with specialists in real-time and the patient can have access to the family doctor in real time. Communication about treatment will be easier and family doctors can get help much easier. This will benefit the whole medical system”.

For the patient, benefits will include reduced traveling time, lower costs, and fewer missed work days. According to Lu, telemedicine has government support and policies have been introduced to encourage its use. While China is beginning to embrace 5G in medical settings, low-latency, high-bandwidth connectivity technology is underpinning advanced telehealth and aiding hospital logistics worldwide.

5G is also providing the basis for experimentation into advanced uses such as surgery performed remotely by experts using robotic arms connected through communications networks. These applications can also form new revenue streams for operators, which have a central role in enabling this exciting use of modern network technology.

5G has generated a buzz due to the capabilities of the technology itself, potential use cases, and its ability to catalyse a chain reaction of digital transformation. Those within the healthcare industry feel that 5G and the hype around it will help drive the innovation, adoption, and implementation of new technologies and solutions.