Healthcare has many use cases for 5G and IoT but no infrastructure to support it

Hospital leaders are tracking the technologies but not making any implementation plans yet.
Written by Veronica Combs, Senior Writer

At a hospital, the Internet of Things (IoT) makes more sense than in many other places. Consider: The ROI of connecting blood pressure cuffs, bed monitors, infusion pumps, and other monitoring devices, not to mention tracking staff, inventory, and patients and other use cases.

Healthcare leaders see even more use cases for 5G, from quickly transmitting scans to expanding telemedicine and to using augmented realitiy and virtual reality experiences to treat patients.

SEE: 5G: What it means for IoT (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature) | Download the free PDF version (TechRepublic)

What about 5G and IoT use cases? Healthcare has plenty of those, but neither the infrastructure nor room on the IT priority list to implement. Tech leaders are more focused on electronic medical records, interoperability, and machine learning. Costs become the other big problem associated with each technological advance. Hospital IT budgets may not be up to the task of securing all those smart devices or building a network to connect them.

Here's a look at where 5G is helping hospitals with IoT and other projects, as well as potential roadblocks.

AT&T partnership with Rush Hospital

About a year ago, Rush Hospital in Chicago announced a plan to move to 5G connectivity in one building on its campus

The hospital intends to use AT&T's 5G network, Multi-Access Edge Computing (MEC), and other services as they become available. Rush will manage cellular traffic over both its local network and its wide area network via the MEC services. This will allow Rush to meet network communications and application processing needs for its data, enhance the various use cases across its system, and help improve the patient experience. Part of the network will be designated for patients and visitors, with another portion dedicated for the use of Rush's physicians and staff.

Jeremy Marut, the hospital's chief enterprise architect, said in an interview that infrastructure costs pushed the hospital to make the move. He said one of the first steps was to install a millimeter-wave antenna within the hospital's atrium, where it will connect hospital PCs and devices using a 5G hotspot.

The hospital system is also building a new patient care center on its campus, and 5G will be the default system there.

Infrastructure investments

Just as there are not enough workers to install the new 5G hardware, there may not be enough dollars in hospitals' IT budgets to cover 5G hardware in those facilities

Accenture predicts that the US wireless industry will invest $275 billion over the next few years to deploy 5G networks. To make 5G coverage widely available, telecom companies will have to lay fiber, and place tens of thousands of small cells and distributed antenna systems (DAS) on utility poles and other urban infrastructure.

Telecom companies will take on some of the cost of this expansion, but not all. Mckinsey suggested that operators will consider the  joint building of new networks and new revenue models to share the costs.

Also, hospital leaders seem to be waiting for 5G to be more broadly available to businesses in general before making any investments themselves. Currently 5G is available in specific neighborhoods in about 30 cities in America. Even in those connected places, coverage is spotty.

The benefits of 5G in healthcare may not reach beyond city limits either. The low latency in 5G connections could make it easier for people in rural communities to benefit from telemedicine, but only if there is 5G coverage in those places. Telecom companies are focusing the 5G buildout in urban areas mostly because the ROI of installing 5G infrastructure in rural communities is non-existent.  

American patients and healthcare IT leaders will likely have to wait a few years to see the benefits of 5G and IoT in healthcare. Patients in China may see some of these advances in care much sooner than American patients. In China, 30 hospitals, Huawei, the China Association of Medical Equipment, and three major telecom companies released the first 5G-based standard for hospital networks in September 2019.

A universal standard will accelerate 5G development in digital healthcare improvements, including consultations and image analysis.

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