By Suzanne Campbell 

It’s mind-blowing to think that at the turn of this century, cell phones were still a novel technology used by a limited few and capable of only basic talk and text. Fast-forward two decades, and industries everywhere, including the medical field, now rely on cellular technology for critical communication. One innovation at the forefront of cellular technology is the advancement of 5G, otherwise known as the fifth-generation technology standard.

What Is 5G?

In essence, 5G is an extremely fast data transmission speed that minimizes latency, or the delay that happens before data transfer. With 5G, data is transmitted at a speed of 1 GBps or faster with less than 1 ms latency. 5G also allows up to 500-times more devices to be on a network at one time. Essentially, 5G can accommodate the ever-growing number of cell users and exchange data nearly instantaneously.

5G performance can be reached using three separate spectrum bands—low-band, mid-band, and high-band. While lower bands offer slightly slower data performance but a wider range of coverage, higher bands provide lightning-fast data but are limited in range. Low-band 5G is what many carrier networks offer today and is achieved in two ways—by aggregating their existing 4G data and by using dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) technology.

In the cellular technology space, carriers are racing to develop an infrastructure that will utilize 5G across low-band, mid-band, and high-band. Note: Most carriers currently utilize low-band 5G frequencies as they develop their mid-band and high-band 5G.

“With 5G, groundbreaking technology that was once just a pipe dream is unlocked, such as self-driving cars, which need real-time data to react quickly to oncoming objects and drive safely,” says Brandon Rees, regional sales manager at Salt Lake City-based Wilson Electronics, a provider of 5G technologies. “We are just beginning to fathom what artificial intelligence and automation could be achieved within the context of 5G.”

In the medical field, a surgery once performed in person could be performed by a surgeon remotely using automated robotic technology. And this isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. In 2019, the world watched as the first 5G remote surgery took place when a physician in Sanya, China, inserted a stimulation device inside the brain of a patient nearly 2,000 miles away in Beijing.

In essence, in hospitals where a patient’s health can change in a second, 5G is the new gold standard of communication.

How Is 5G Used in Hospitals?

Hospitals are at an automatic disadvantage when it comes to cell coverage and data speeds, primarily because a hospital is built with thick layers of steel, cement, and brick —materials made to withstand even the toughest elements. Unfortunately, those same construction materials also block cell signals, so many hospitals struggle with poor cell reception or even none at all. Suffice it to say that implementing 5G in hospitals would completely flip the industry standard of poor data communication on its head.

The Instant Transfer of Large Imaging Files

As 5G technology emerges, hospitals are beginning to recognize the many benefits that this lightning-fast data transmission would provide their patrons, including their network of physicians, patients, and visitors. One key benefit 5G would provide for hospitals is the ability to transfer large imaging files instantaneously. For instance, an x-ray file can contain 30 or even 60 frames and be several gigabytes in data size, making it difficult to digitally transfer at a fast speed.

With 5G, a large x-ray file could be sent in a mere second, making it possible for a physician to make a quicker diagnosis and a patient more quickly able to gather the facts about his or her injury. That benefit alone can speed up the entire medical process.

Reliable and Efficient Virtual Medical Visits

Telehealth appointments have skyrocketed within the last year—due, in large part, to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, CDC statistics indicate that the number of telehealth appointments surged 50%, year-over-year, in 2020. More and more, physicians and patients are using cellular devices for these remote online appointments, and with that, need a fast, reliable cellular connection. 5G enables physicians and patients to attend virtual appointments with the confidence that the call won’t be dropped and that there will be no lag in video or voice.

Real-Time Monitoring of Medical Equipment

From a medical device perspective, the benefits of real-time communication enabled by 5G technology are numerous. Take the monitoring of medical equipment, for example. With 5G, a clinician would be immediately alerted if, say, a patient on a dialysis machine experienced a problem. For patients relying on medical devices—whether in a home healthcare environment or a hospital—5G technology could offer life-saving capabilities.

How Can a Hospital Implement 5G?

Since many technological innovations for hospitals can easily venture into the millions of dollars, it’s easy to understand why hospitals might balk at the idea of implementing 5G. But the reality is far less cumbersome on both a hospital’s budget and timeline.

Just look at providers like Wilson Electronics, according to the company’s Brandon Rees. Wilson Electronics offers 5G solutions for healthcare facilities in the form of cellular repeaters. In a nutshell, an outside cell signal is amplified and then distributed within hospitals to improve the signal. In the past few years, he says, Wilson Electronics has handled cell reception in hundreds of hospitals throughout the United States. Minimal construction was required in these facilities; Wilson Electronics simply installed the equipment needed and the improvement to cell reception throughout the facilities was immediate, Rees maintains.

“I’m really excited to see the leaps the medical industry is able to take once 5G becomes more mainstream,” says Rees. “Over the next few years, the capabilities will be incredible as you combine the effects of 5G with artificial intelligence. Where and how surgeries and medical procedures are performed, the process the patient goes through, at-home care. It will all look very different.”

Suzanne Campbell is a Salt Lake City-based professional writer, who works for Wilson Electronics. Questions and comments can be directed to 24×7 Magazine chief editor Keri Forsythe-Stephens at [email protected].