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How 5G can help bridge the gap in rural healthcare.

More than just an upgrade from 4G, 5G technology brings new potential to revolutionize how healthcare is delivered to patients outside major cities.

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Doctors in rural areas may experience a workload unparalleled by their urban counterparts. According to a 2017 nationwide study by the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program, rural areas had only one-eighth the number of specialists per 100,000 residents as urban areas did.

Hospital closures in recent years may have expanded that gap. And the challenge accelerated with COVID-19, fueling burnout among medical practitioners in rural areas that were already stretched thin.

Now, though, there’s a viable solution that can begin to narrow the urban-rural healthcare gap. The high speed, low latency, and greater capacity and reliability of 5G promise to transform healthcare delivery.

Connectivity is key to wider access to rural health services.

Illustration of doctor and patient conference on a tablet with icons of body parts and vital signs

Telehealth consultations are already occurring in some rural areas. 5G’s superior speed can allow for the faster transfer of medical imaging, video, and other data than earlier-generation mobile network technologies. 5G’s greater capacity can also mean that more wearables and smart devices can be deployed in an integrated manner to remotely monitor patients. And the potential for near-zero network latency with 5G enables surgeons to operate remotely on patients, regardless of geography or distance.

Other emerging technologies, powered by the reliable 5G network, could open doors to other modes of treatment. Devices supported by artificial intelligence (AI), such as 3D cameras, could be used to rapidly analyze patient data and provide agile decision support to healthcare providers, enabling more accurate and timely diagnoses. Further, machine learning could aggregate and analyze data from patient cohorts and train predictive models, providing an opportunity for better insights into particular conditions and treatment options. And virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) could be deployed for an ever-growing number of diagnostic and treatment options that improve patient care.

Rural telemedicine, driven by richer data, is reaching more people.

COVID-19 accelerated the practice of video consultations by medical professionals. The pandemic also highlighted the gap in access to timely and high-quality healthcare. In response, the FCC declared in 2021 that reliable cellular connectivity is a social determinant of health. Those without reliable access to cellular service are more likely to develop illness and disease. 

The percentage of outpatient visits conducted via telehealth increased nearly 38 times compared to pre-pandemic levels. Today, video appointments remain popular even as people resume in-person meetings and activities. Yet video-enabled care lags in rural areas, where reliable connectivity continues to pose challenges for many. 

Using 5G in healthcare, medical professionals can reach a wider segment of the population. 5G’s speed and capacity can enable higher-quality video capabilities, which first responders could use to assess patients and begin treatment even while an ambulance is en route to the hospital—a huge advantage in emergency situations. A hospital in Washington state is exploring deployment of an in-ambulance system, powered by 5G, that helps medical personnel remotely assess acute stroke patients.

5G can allow doctors to rapidly determine a patient’s health status and immediate needs, enabling those who don’t require in-person care to avoid travel. Virtual visits enable consultations that simultaneously bring together multiple experts, leading to a more holistic, better-coordinated approach. Patients located virtually anywhere can connect with specialists.

PET scans—a common imaging test that generates up to 1 GB of information per patient—require 5G connectivity for near-real-time transmission of data files.

5G can also give providers access to richer data, powering 3D imaging and integrating multiple sensors seamlessly. PET scans—a common imaging test, which can generate up to 1 GB of information per patient—require 5G connectivity for near-real-time transmission of these huge data files. The ability to transmit digital film from a rural location to broader care teams and specialists in a metropolitan hub can help more rural patients receive top-quality, timely care without traveling hours or days to receive it.

Remote patient monitoring allows 24/7 care.

Healthcare professionals agree that remote patient monitoring is an important innovation in the delivery of care that has improved and saved lives. Remote patient monitoring devices, which collect important biometric data as patients go about their daily routines, also help shrink the urban-rural gap in access to timely interaction with their care teams. Further, care providers have greater insights into the presence and impact of disease on patients through the evaluation of data that correlates with the activities of daily life and the continual choices that patients make.

Industry analysts project that the wearables and remote patient monitoring market will grow to $612 billion by 2024.

Grand View Research Inc.

Industry analysts project that the wearables and remote patient monitoring market will grow to $612 billion by 2024. 5G’s unprecedented capacity has the potential to support upwards of 1 million connected devices per square kilometer and the continual, near-real-time transmission of data from patient to care team. The accelerating trend of new devices and solutions entering the market means there are new opportunities to improve remote patient management, leading to better outcomes.

Robotic surgery is making specialized procedures available to all.

Illustration of a surgeon in one location performing robotic surgery and a surgeon in another location viewing on a monitor

The robotic surgery market is expected to surpass $7 billion by 2025—more than doubling the utilization in 2019. Remote, robotic-assisted surgery could become commonplace as 5G networks mature.

iData Research

Latency—a lag in data transmission—is a critical consideration when robotic surgery is performed remotely over a network. A pause of even a few milliseconds could cause a negative surgical outcome. 5G, with its ultra-low latency, could help alleviate this concern.

Robot-assisted surgery is increasingly used for operations that require meticulous precision, including spinal surgery and prostate removal, even when the surgeon and patient are in the same location. In fact, studies have shown that robotic-assisted surgery done locally provides greater surgical accuracy compared to procedures performed without robotic assistance.

5G could also permit specialty surgeons to extend their vital services to patients virtually anywhere, without the need to travel. The network could enable remote surgeons to perform complex procedures with targeted precision to patients in need, even in rural areas. This innovation promises to improve the gap in access to necessary surgical services for rural Americans.

The robotic surgery market is expected to surpass $7 billion by 2025—more than doubling the utilization in 2019. Remote, robotic-assisted surgery could become commonplace as 5G networks mature.

Speed and reliability are essential to the impact of 5G on healthcare.

5G may be ideally suited to helping advance modern healthcare in rural communities. That’s because 5G’s networking advantages include speed, responsiveness, capacity, and reliability—the same qualities that are essential to leading-edge medical services such as remote monitoring and robotic surgery.

With 5G connectivity, the innovations that are available in urban healthcare can be widely available to people everywhere. The power of 5G has the potential to close the urban-rural health disparities and access gap once and for all, an achievement we can all feel good about. 

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