5G’s promise: A new heartbeat for healthcare

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Picture this: An
ambulance rushes a seriously injured patient to the hospital. In the back, the
paramedic makes a video call with doctors while sending them real-time vital
signs and images of the injury.

It doesn’t look good.

The paramedic pulls out what looks like an oversized ski glove connected to wires and grabs an ultrasound wand that a sonographer in an office somewhere virtually steers over the patient’s injury. The sonographer then reviews the images for signs of trouble.

By the time the ambulance pulls up to the emergency
room, the patient’s data, medical history, and insurance information has already
been reviewed. The operating room is prepped, and a doctor starts
robotic-assisted surgery, which provides crystal-clear 3D images showing anatomic
details that would otherwise be invisible to the naked eye.

Internet-connected ambulances, patient monitoring
from afar, and robotic-assisted surgeries are small examples of what experts
say may become normal in healthcare after superfast 5G mobile networks—the
successor to today’s 4G—become widespread. The technology, supporters say, will
vastly improve patient treatment by allowing for even greater use of data and
video and sci-fi technologies that rely on it.

“On a 4G network, if you were trying to transfer this kind of information from an ambulance that’s moving to a hospital, I think it would probably take as long or longer than it would take to arrive at the medical center,” said Scott Boden, vice president for business innovation for Emory Healthcare, in Atlanta. “It’s just not practical at this moment.”

On a 5G network, however, huge amounts of data
can be transferred in a few seconds or less, he added. The technology’s
potential to transform a number of industries has companies and investors
making big bets on this space.

Improved connectivity from 5G and other advanced networking technologies could enable gains in efficiency thattranslate into an extra $250 billion to $420 billionin annual global GDP by 2030 , Sreenivas Ramaswamy, a partner at McKinsey & Company and McKinsey Global Institute, told Fortune.

Other digitized healthcare benefits–such as increased efficiency for health workers, paperless data systems, and telemedicine raise the possible financial benefits to $1.5 trillion to $3.0 trillion annually by 2030, he said. And, indirect effects on healthcare, such as better health outcomes and healthier populations, may increase global GDP by another $2.1 trillion annually[JB9]  by increasing worker productivity, extending life expectancy, and improving patient care, Ramaswamy added.

5G technology is touted as critical for implementing and commercializing augmented and virtual reality, which experiences lag time when running on 4G networks. It’s also seen as important to improving how data is exchanged between connected devices.

“When we think about 5G, we’re thinking about
things like artificial intelligence, VR and AR,” said Maggie Hallbach, vice
president of state, local and education public sector group at Verizon. “If you
attempt to do VR and AR in a 4G environment, over an extended period of time,
it will give you motion sickness because of the lag. It’s only a 20 to 50
millisecond lag, but that causes your visual recognition and your brain to
process information differently.”

5G’s limited latency–the time it takes for
information to make a round trip between two points–along with the millions of Internet-connected
devices that are expected to come online, can help to solve real-world issues
in an industry in which every millisecond counts.

Atlanta-based Emory Healthcare Innovation Hub
(EHIH) hopes to tap into that promise. The initiative is focused on leveraging 5G
and other newer technologies to develop robotic-assisted surgical techniques,
remote physical therapy, medical imaging, and yes, connected ambulances.

Partners include Emory University and Emory
Healthcare, along with corporations like Konica Minolta Healthcare, Novo
Nordisk, Philips, Stryker, and as of a couple weeks ago, Verizon.

Bringing digital innovations to the healthcare
industry could potentially reduce the cost of care, said Boden. But barriers
such as organizational complexity and legacy systems make it difficult to
introduce new technology into the healthcare industry.

“We are working on a connected ambulance
project that bridges the gap between 911 dispatchers, the ambulance, the care
coordinator and the emergency department,” said James Lewis, CEO and co-founder
of 11 Ten Innovation Partners, which manages the Emory Healthcare Innovation
Hub. Soon, too, the connected ambulances will be equipped with imaging devicesthat can used while
the patient is in transit.

As with all technology advances, 5G opens up a
Pandora’s box of issues, according to a recent McKinsey
Global Institute report
. Data security, patient privacy and regulations for
how patient data can be shared and profited from are the top concerns. Another major
obstacle is changing how the healthcare industry operates in light of its heavy
regulation and traditional slowness in adopting new technology.

Lewis believes that 5G’s impact will be more
immediately seen in the retail and consumer industries, because people will be
able to do things they were unable to do on 3G or 4G networks. “Imagine going
to the Super Bowl where 100,000 people in the stadium will be able to stream
multiple, high-definition videos all at once, without a lag. A few years ago,
in that same space, they all couldn’t make a phone call at the same time,”
Lewis said.

He continued: “Healthcare, though, will be a later use case for 5G. It’s a big industry that struggles to adopt new technology because there’s a lot of scrutiny, security and other regulatory things around it  We may have driverless cars on the roads, 3D-printed parts in construction, but getting something like a digital stethoscope implemented could be a real struggle.”

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—Researchers found a hole in PayPal’s security. PayPal says it’s no big deal
—For $3, this app will sue data brokers that don’t delete your personal info
—After folding phone screens, get ready for unrolling displays
—Chinese company publishes purported evidence of CIA hacks
When will PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X debut? With coronavirus, it’s anyone’s guess

Catch up with Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily digest on the business of tech.

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