The Future Will Be More Connected

Roll-out of 5G in the German healthcare market begins cautiously

The notion of healthcare as a string of singular encounters between a sick person and a caregiver has been superseded by that of a patient journey — a continuum of incidents and interactions between someone and the health ecosystem, ideally over their lifespan.

The exchange of healthcare data plays an important part in this journey, and information and communication technology is a major enabler for patient-centric connected healthcare that’s more efficient and saves resources. Increasingly, data is used as a base for personalizing care, predicting the likelihood of health problems and for launching preventative measures, be it for a single patient or a whole population.

The pandemic has accelerated the use of technology to improve access to care and triggered a global surge in telehealth, including online triage as well as audio and video consultations in addition to the remote monitoring of patients. This, however, has also put a heavier burden on existing networks, a fact that has sparked debate about the role of 5G in healthcare.

What’s the Added Value of 5G in Healthcare?

The fifth generation of wireless networks is characterized by its ability to quickly transfer substantial amounts of data, its reliability, low latency and rapid dissemination of information, as well as its ability to incorporate many more terminals than other wireless standards. Furthermore, 5G allows network slicing, which provides for end-to-end support and management of many network applications according to specific needs. Some other network technologies also share some of these features, but none offers all the advantages to the same degree.

The healthcare market, with its need for capacity, bandwidth, reliability, security, and availability and latency, can benefit from these features in various areas: telemonitoring; mass connectivity of sensors and devices in the Internet of things; wireless applications in augmented and virtual reality; real-time data transmission with emergency services; robotic remote surgery; livestreaming of medical procedures; remote diagnosis, especially in rural areas; tracking of patients and devices as well as equipment in buildings; transport of drugs, organs and more by drones, to name a few.

Nevertheless, CCS Insight expects that 5G will be used in addition to other technologies, notably fixed-line networks. As many applications and communications will take place in the home or a hospital, fibre networks paired with Wi-Fi 6 technology could be equally or more effective than 5G, depending on the application. According to German newspaper Handelsblatt, for example, Deutsche Telekom is considering setting up a new joint venture in Germany to cover as many as 4 million rural locations in the country with fibre networks in the coming years.

A Glimpse of 5G in the German Market

Overall, momentum for 5G in Germany appears to be building: Deutsche Telekom plans to connect over 90% of the population of Germany with 5G networks by the end of 2021, up from 85% in September 2021 and has already deployed 55,000 antennas. CCS Insight forecasts almost 20 million 5G connections in Germany in 2021, rising to 35 million in 2022 and 91 million in 2025. But how commonly used is 5G in healthcare?

The Ostbayerische Technische Hochschule (OTH) Amberg-Weiden recently hosted its Symposium 5G4Healthcare, which shed light on how 5G can contribute to greater efficiency in healthcare. The university has been running a research project funded under the 5G Innovation Programme of the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure since 2020.

The project aims to develop solutions that can be used as a blueprint for digital healthcare delivery in rural regions. Professor Dr Steffen Hamm, chair of digital healthcare management at OTH Amberg-Weiden, explains: “we are looking at the effects of 5G technology; how does it interact with hardware and software? What about interoperability? What overall health economic effect can we achieve with the help of 5G?”. He adds that “there is not a sole use case for 5G — it depends on the overall requirements. If it’s about the inclusion of a single device, this doesn’t require 5G, but a large number of them would”.

The event clarified that 5G is currently mainly deployed in the automotive, logistics and retail sectors. Its uptake in healthcare is slower than in other areas, at least in the German market. Professor Dr Hans Dieter Schotten, chair of radio communications and navigation at the University of Kaiserslautern, links this to the extremely specific regulation, a lack of specialists in the field, and the need for wide availability of 5G. “Additionally, there’s a lack of market transparency and the financing of 5G is very difficult, because the public 5G networks that are designed for 95% availability do not serve the very high security, latency and availability requirements of a hospital”, he adds. The need for private or so-called campus 5G networks adds to the investment costs.

Few Healthcare Uses

In the German healthcare sector, 5G has only been only used sporadically. Holger Mauerer, principal customer solution architect at Vodafone, reports that “5G is used especially where a lot of data is transmitted. For example, in telemedicine, for the use of VR glasses during surgery, in ambulances to access patient records or to liaise with clinicians en route to the hospital”.

Mr Mauerer also sees 5G used for asset management, particularly tracking of beds and equipment, as well as monitoring of patients’ vital signs transmission using Internet of things sensors. “During the pandemic, 5G helped move the check-in area outside a clinic, which required mobile solutions such as facial field recognition to check if a person is wearing a mask or taking a temperature”, he exemplifies.

However, for 5G to work reliably, it needs an almost ubiquitous coverage, which hasn’t been achieved, neither in Germany nor elsewhere. So, healthcare institutions might be hesitant to deploy 5G-based services that heavily rely on an uninterrupted connection, such as emergency services or remote surgeries.

Challenges on the Way

There are still institutional, technological, financial and cultural hurdles that 5G must overcome. It also needs more defined uses. As it stands, health organizations need guidance to identify how their innovation road map ties in with their connectivity needs. Their needs for real-time, reliable and secure data exchanges must consider factors such as electromagnetic compatibility, compliance with medical device regulations, building features such as height of ceilings and thickness of walls, costs, and the overall adoption of 5G in the healthcare space.

This is an opportunity for suppliers with 5G strategies and solutions to start close conversations with healthcare providers to understand their needs and help them identify where 5G can bring true value and where a mix of other technologies and equipment can better serve their purpose.