In August this year, Business Insider published an article about a remote surgery performed in China. This is nothing new; doctors and surgeons have been consulting via telephone and video call for decades. If we want to trace the roots of collaborative surgery, we would have to go back even further to the surgical theatres of centuries past, but that’s for another time.
No, collaboration is nothing new. What is new is having a specialist perform surgery on a patient nearly 3,000 kilometers away.
Dr. Ling Zhipei, chief physician of the First Medical Center Beijing-based PLAGH, and the Department of Neurosurgery for PLAGH’s Hainan Hospital, carried out a procedure to insert a deep brain stimulation implant in a Beijing-based patient suffering from Parkinson’s.
With lag time shortened a near-instant 2 milliseconds, Dr. Ling was able to use robotics via a 5G connection to conduct the first ever long-distance human surgery from his location in Sanya, Hainan Province. As media source China Daily noted, “the success of the remote surgery has realised a major breakthrough in China’s telemedicine from remote observation, consultation and guidance to operation.”
The Beijing/Sanya operation demonstrates just how pivotal the arrival of 5G could be for surgery, and healthcare as a whole. If surgeries can already be performed remotely from thousands of kilometers away with the introduction of the technology, the possibilities seem limitless. Therefore, it makes sense for those of us in medtech to take a hard look at the improvements that 5G promises, especially for us in the medical communications space.
How does 5G work?
First and foremost, 5G is the next (fifth) generation of cellular tech. The speed of the technology is making the most headlines: imagine being able to download an entire season of your favorite Netflix show in literally seconds! Speed isn’t everything, though. We’ll also get wider coverage and improved responsiveness from our wireless tools. In particular, 5G will impact the devices that make up the Internet of Things (IoT), like smart lights or home security systems, by accepting and allowing more of them online at a given time than 4G is currently capable of.
The incredibly low latency is also key to the 5G buzz. Essentially, latency is the delay between clicking a link and seeing the content. Current high-speed internet has a latency of around 20 milliseconds, which is already seems fast. 5G can cut that down to 1 millisecond, making responses effectively instant.
Low latency is what allowed Dr. Zhipei’s surgery to happen. Depending on locations and connection strengths with 4G and fibre optic cables, video delay can sometimes be up to 2 seconds, which in a surgical situation could prove to be dangerous, if not fatal. 5G offers a reliable and real opportunity to make remote surgery a reality for the first time in history.
Where will 5G be implemented?
In order to achieve the high speeds and low latency that 5G promises, the connection points need to be much closer together than the cell towers we have now. That’s because 5G uses a shorter wavelength, or a higher frequency wavelength, to transmit signals than 4G. That shorter wavelength prevents 5G signals from travelling very far or through barriers like buildings. Even harsh weather conditions can cause the signal to fluctuate or falter.
A solution to this problem has been presented in small cells: broadcasting units small enough to be installed on every street light in an urban area, increasing the coverage density as a result. Getting small cell infrastructure off the ground will be a mammoth effort and require significant funding. There could also be delays if city residents are resistant to such a heavy-duty infrastructure project, despite the benefits that 5G could bring, especially since the shorter wavelengths needed will require cells to be placed inside buildings as well. Only then will businesses, institutions, and ordinary homes will be able to take full advantage of the 5G network. In rural areas, it will take even longer to implement.
That being said, 5G is already rolling out in major cities around the world. China has 5G partially up and running in some higher tier cities, and locations in the United States and Europe are currently trialing it in urban centers.
What needs to be done to welcome 5G?
5G will require a lot of investment, both financial and educational. Devices currently operating on 4G networks won’t function on newer 5G infrastructure, and because of the need for small cells, buildings will need to install multiple units to harness 5G for business purposes. Data processors will also need to be prepared to handle the massive amounts of data that 5G is capable of transferring, while employees unfamiliar with 5G will require training on new devices.
Optimistically, major cities around the world can anticipate a wider implementation of 5G networks by 2021, assuming the infrastructures can be installed successfully, so we still have time to get familiar with how 5G impacts individual cases.
At Siilo, secure data processing takes top priority for us and our users, and with the promise of 5G, we will be reviewing how it will impact data transfers across the newer, faster network. Some of our features like video calling will benefit immensely from the low latency that 5G offers. Our app will be optimised to run perfectly on devices that have access to the 5G network and those that don’t. We will work together with our Siilo Connect partners to ensure smooth transitions from 4G networks onto 5G networks as institutions bring them online.
With remote procedures becoming possible thanks to 5G, it’s our duty as a medtech company to help institutions and professionals take advantage of these new technologies where we can and ensure we’re up to the challenge.
Who will benefit from 5G advances in healthcare?
Simply put: everyone in healthcare will benefit from 5G. As shown by the successful Beijing/Sanya procedure, tele-surgeries are now science-fact rather than science-fiction. Specialists from regions — even continents—away will be able to consult in real time on procedures, or participate themselves. Rapid data exchange will bring more healthcare tech systems online, inviting a health-focused surge to take place in IoT development. The promise of improved collaboration is both immense and real.
It’s important to note, however, that the immediate beneficiaries of 5G networks will live in major urban centers, like Beijing, London, or New York. There are powerful drivers in these cities that are eager to get 5G online to benefit their initiatives, be they tech or business-related. Healthcare institutions, such as universities and hospitals, will reap those same benefits by already being located in those cities with the infrastructure by default. By extension, the patients will also reap the benefits. It is likely that institutions and patients in rural locations will be waiting a while longer for 5G networks to reach them.
Siilo and 5G
Siilo is for everyone in healthcare, no matter their location or work. Adopting 5G impacts our ability to intake data and analyse it at speed; we’ll be able to process more user feedback, generate more insights on how Siilo is used, and assess bugs and crashes almost as they happen. Most importantly, 5G will make it easier for us to help the professionals we serve to do their jobs and in turn serve their patients. 5G will let us work faster, so that we can maintain and improve the quality of Siilo for healthcare professionals.
We are incredibly excited about the possibilities that 5G could offer. As Dr. Michael Kranzfelder, a senior physician at Munich’s Technical University, told Business Insider, “We’ll be able to connect many more medical devices together and gain data from the patient, in a way that isn’t possible at the moment. Different specialists, not necessarily in the same place, will all be able to work together for the first time.” Hooking up tech that clinicians currently use — such as surgical robots — and developing new tech with 5G in mind promises to revolutionise how medicine can be practiced around the world.
We can’t wait for the time when surgeries like the one performed by Dr. Ling Zhipei are commonplace, rather than extraordinary. Siilo is eager to be part of that monumental transition, connecting healthcare professionals to each other and providing them with tools to facilitate smooth, high quality information exchange.
All that being said, we need to consider the entire world when thinking of how 5G will affect the way healthcare professionals can do their jobs. 5G is in its infancy, and we won’t be seeing its influence until 2021 at the earliest. We can admire the future it promises, but in the present, we must focus on engaging users regardless of their location and cellular wavelengths. Siilo is committed to delivering a quality, effective product to our entire network, and when 5G does come around, we promise not to forget the ones who cannot access it.