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JournalThe Future Impact of 5G in Healthcare

Recently, the German state of North Rhein-Westphalia created the ‘Competence Center 5G.NRW’ to help push the state into the lead market for 5G. This initiative aims to reduce technical entry barriers for companies, develops the economic potential for vertical markets – such as automotive and mobility, energy, food and agriculture, smart cities, healthcare and manufacturing – and accelerates the diffusion of innovation. It is supported by four main partners: SIKoM at the Bergische University Wuppertal, the University of Duisburg-Essen, the Technical University of Dortmund and the FIR at RWTH Aachen.

One of the goals of 5G.NRW is to create Europe’s first 5G medical campus at Düsseldorf University hospital. The project, called Giga for Health: 5G Medizincampus NRW, brings together nine partners who will work together in the coming years to make hospitals fit for digitization and to advance the use of 5G in medicine.

What is 5G?

5G is the fifth generation of wireless cellular technology for telecommunications. The first, 1G, was launched in Japan in 1979, followed by 2G in 1991, 3G in 2001, 4G in 2009 and now 5G in 2019. This fifth generation provides even more connectivity, higher speeds, more reliability and less latency than previous generations, which is especially important in this Internet of Things era.

Internet of Things (IoT) refers to systems of interconnected devices that can transfer and collect data over a wireless network without the aid of humans. Examples of this in healthcare would be integrated operating rooms in which multiple systems are connected and exchange data for surgical decision-making support.

Why 5G in healthcare?

The volume and complexity of data in healthcare is increasing exponentially. As we mention in our Brainlab Journal article Artificial Intelligence in Healthcare: Past, Present and Future, in 1950 it took about 50 years for the amount of data in the medical field to double. By 2020, that window had shrunken to just 73 days.

This massive increase in data volume can be attributed to numerous factors, such as advancements to existing technologies, like MRI and CT scanners, producing higher quality and therefore larger images. The prominence of wearable and health monitoring devices and smartphone apps also add to the influx of health data.

Newer technologies in use in healthcare, like mixed and virtual reality devices, further add to this increase in data volume. During the rendering of the images these devices produce, large amounts of data are transferred over the network. By introducing 5G and multi-access edge and cloud computing , the data can be transferred at higher speeds therefore improving the viewing and collaboration experience.

Transferring and processing these new unprecedented volumes of data requires agility, efficiency and speed. Successfully done, 5G will enable a myriad of advancements in medicine, including the broader use of artificial intelligence for personalized medicine, the expansion of telehealth and remote patient monitoring, and the wider adoption of spatial computing technologies like augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality.

Giga for Health: 5G Medical Campus

The goal of Giga for Health is a self-proclaimed ambitious one: To save lives with 5G. This project aims to technically develop, test and scientifically evaluate if that can work in practice. This project strives to enable the use of the fastest data transfer technology for its medical usage in treatments, research and education.

The medical campus will test and improve, for example, the use of monitoring devices in emergency medicine. Patients will have a wearable device adhered to their skin upon arrival at the hospital which will monitor their vital signs in real-time and send them automatically to a centralized patient monitoring unit. If a patient’s heartrate or other vital signs change, action can be quickly taken.

Another example of the use of 5G in the scope of this project is in computer assisted brain surgery. With mixed reality technology, highly complex 3D structures of the brain can be virtually projected into the consultation room or, in the future, into the operating room with the use of dedicated augmented reality glasses. The ability to view the patient’s anatomy and the surgical plan with a hyper-realistic 3D rendering aims to help surgeons better orient themselves during surgery.

5G indeed has the potential to reinvent a healthcare industry that struggles to meet the challenges presented by the data it generates[i]. As more and more projects like Giga for Health are implemented around the globe, our understanding and our ability to shape the future of healthcare with digital innovations increases. And with more innovation comes the potential for even better patient care and treatments.

[i] Latif S, Qadir J, Farooq S, Imran MA. How 5G wireless (and concomitant technologies) will revolutionize healthcare? MDPI. Published December 11, 2017. Accessed November 11, 2021.