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5G impact on healthcare a ways off, but CIOs shouldn't sit idle

5G could benefit areas of healthcare like telehealth and remote patient monitoring. That reality is still a few years out, but CIOs should start planning for it now.

The 5G impact on healthcare is still years away, but it promises a disruption so great, healthcare CIOs need to start planning for it now.

5G is the newest wireless network being rolled out in small deployments by carriers like Verizon and AT&T, and, according to analysts, it will be faster and more reliable than 4G LTE.

Bill Menezes, senior principal analyst at Gartner, said the 5G technology standard supports significantly faster data speeds, lower latency and greater numbers of devices in a coverage area than 4G LTE, the current wireless network. Yet the 5G impact on healthcare will depend on the application, he said.

In this Q&A, Menezes details the potential for 5G in healthcare, as well as what areas healthcare CIOs could see potential benefit, including telehealth and medical imaging.  

Why should healthcare CIOs pay attention to 5G? 

Bill Menezes: While service providers are touting advanced use cases such as remote surgery, the real value will depend on the need for high-throughput or low-latency connectivity to devices that have greater utility with a mobile connection than they do with wired. Virtual reality applications are one example. Additionally, as more healthcare facilities deploy large numbers of IoT endpoints for tracking assets or people, as sensors, for surveillance, et cetera, the ability to enable coverage of this highly dense device population could be another benefit over competing 'best efforts' connectivity technologies such as Wi-Fi or 4G LTE.

How can healthcare CIOs plan for the 5G impact on healthcare?

Gartner senior principal analyst Bill Menezes Bill Menezes

Menezes: Given the expected long time frames for 5G network and endpoint availability, organizations should engage carriers now to assess how their own tech roadmaps match up against what 5G can provide, when it will be available, what type of performance carriers will guarantee, and what service and compatible endpoints will cost.

Where will the greatest 5G impact on healthcare be?

Menezes: First, areas that do not benefit from or require mobility likely will not require 5G. The value proposition is mobility along with high throughput, low latency and massive endpoint density. So high-resolution imaging for devices you'd like to be untethered by a wire or cable may benefit from 5G, assuming 5G service is available at the device location. High-resolution, live-streaming video for telehealth also would be impacted, for locations requiring a mobile element. Remember that for 5G to perform up to its specs, it needs not only a 5G endpoint and network transmitter -- such as cellular small cell -- but also fiber backhaul from that transmitter. Without sufficient backhaul, there's the potential for a bottleneck at the transmitter.

How 5G works

5G is a wireless network with a theoretical peak data transmission speed of 20 GBps. The peak speed of the current 4G LTE wireless network is 1 GBps. 5G will operate at a higher radio wave frequency than 4G, providing faster data transfer rates and less latency. The 5G wireless signal will be transmitted by small cell stations outfitted with advanced antenna technology. 4G is supported by large, high-powered cell towers that transmit signals across long distances. 5G will rely on many small cell stations to transmit signals across shorter distances in more densely populated areas, like cities. The benefit of more small cell stations versus fewer large cell towers is less competition for bandwidth and less power draw on devices, meaning longer battery life.

How costly will 5G be to healthcare organizations?

Menezes: Mobile service carriers have provided little to no insight into how they plan to price 5G services, beyond the limited examples now available from their initial commercial deployments of consumer-oriented 5G service in select markets. It's likely that rather than simply making 5G available under current service plan structures for users with 5G devices, carriers will use a variety of pricing mechanisms based on the type of service (fixed location, mobile, IoT, et cetera); type of device; and type of application performance (throughput, latency) that the user requires.

Realistically, how long will it be before 5G becomes widely available?

Menezes: Gartner estimates wide commercial availability of 5G in developed markets such as the U.S. by about 2023. Implementation time frames for individual organizations will depend on service and endpoint availability, as well as their own development of applications that will require 5G performance.

Editor's note: Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

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