Long before the outbreak of COVID-19, our healthcare system was already under a significant amount of pressure. In the UK and in similar developed countries, the growth in ageing populations and chronic diseases, such as cancer, have meant a sharp rise in the need for more medical and social care. As a result, there is an inherent need to improve our healthcare system – with new technologies including 5G offering critical opportunities to improve patient care and productivity.

Driving efficiency and productivity

To deliver better patient services, we need to work to improve the productivity of healthcare systems and review the amount of money that is invested overall.

Better productivity in healthcare means delivering the right interventions, to the right patients, with the right expertise, at the right time. This is often difficult because medical experts such as GPs, other doctors, paramedics, nurses, consultants and carers are often based in different institutions, which are sometimes many miles apart. As a result, patients are often transferred or passed between different organisations to have conditions diagnosed or treated – sometimes unnecessarily. This is known as conveyancing.

For instance, with ambulances, some patients depend on the speed of response times as a matter of life and death. For other patients, being rushed to A&E by ambulance might not necessarily be in their best interests, as it might not be in-line with their agreed care plan or the required treatment for their condition. Tackling these avoidable conveyances to hospital and other institutions will help patients get better treatment and improve productivity.

A recent NHS report reviewing ambulance care concluded that: “Tackling avoidable conveyances [trips] to hospital, particularly for elderly patients, supports delivery of care closer to home, reduces unnecessary pressures on our A&Es and wards and could release capacity equivalent to £300 million in the acute sector.”

Offering remote healthcare at scale

The outbreak of coronavirus has hastened the use of technology to diagnose and treat healthcare issues remotely. Patients across the country are now becoming accustomed to relying on remote healthcare services such as NHS 111, virtual GP appointments, and online deliveries of essential medical supplies.

Elsewhere, in the United States, a recent survey found that 17% of US adults have now tried at least one remote healthcare service, as of March 2020. This is compared with only 11% in February – an increase of 50% month-on-month. Furthermore, 30% of US adults intended to try remote healthcare services in March 2020, up from 18% in February 2020. We estimate that figures are likely to be similar in the UK.

5G will prove critical in providing the infrastructure required to deliver remote health services over the next decade. By design, 5G’s ability to deliver real-time information (low latency), ultra-fast speeds (critical for high definition images and video), increased capacity and heightened security are going to be fundamental in scaling the patient benefits of remote healthcare and keeping medical records secure and private.

The remote services people are starting to rely on are reducing unnecessary conveyances and improving the quality of patient care. Where conveyances are required, the right clinical support can be lined-up ahead of time at the right institutions. Furthermore, by combining remote healthcare with new technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, as well as 5G, medical professionals will be able to treat more patients in a safer and more effective way by using intelligence.

The West Midlands trials the UK’s first 5G Connected Ambulance

In June 2019, West Midlands 5G partnered with BT and University Hospitals Birmingham to trial the UK’s first 5G Connected Ambulance. This demonstration showcased the very latest developments in remote diagnostics. By connecting paramedics in real-time with doctors back at the hospital, they are empowered to diagnose conditions even more effectively at first point of patient contact.

The trial demonstrated how a paramedic was able to perform a remote-controlled ultrasound scan on a patient in an ambulance over a public 5G network. Real-time high definition imagery was fed back to a physician over a 5G video link – something that 4G is not fast enough to support. The doctor in the hospital was able to control the ultrasound scan through a special haptic glove. This meant that the doctor could make a more accurate diagnosis on behalf of the paramedic, allowing the patient to be transferred to the most appropriate hospital to receive the right care.

This practice was made possible by the real-time data transfer speeds 5G enables, meaning that emergency services are now able to perform tasks at rapid speeds whilst on the go, including those that previously wouldn’t have been possible, such as an ultrasound. Healthcare professionals say the technology will save lives and reduce waiting times.

Dr Tom Clutton-Brock of University Hospitals Birmingham, said: “Paramedics are an extraordinarily well trained and highly-skilled group of individuals, particularly in emergency care but ultrasound is not something they would do every day. So, this sort of extends the arm of a consultant in the hospital, all the way into the ambulance, and allows me or one of my colleagues to do an ultrasound in real time using the skills of a paramedic.”

Fotis Karonis, CTIO at BT Enterprise said: “We’re thrilled to be working in collaboration with NHS authorities in the West Midlands to prove the benefits of 5G when applied to the healthcare sector. Remote diagnostics over 5G will be key in enabling the NHS to realise its Digital First strategy and brings a wealth of benefits to patients too by moving clinical expertise closer to them.  This can only be achieved using the ultrafast speeds and low latency characteristics of 5G, to allow clinicians at the hospital and paramedics to connect and collaborate in real time. In many cases this could remove the need for patients to go to hospital, easing pressure on A&E departments and leading to better outcomes for patients.”

Since our demonstration, University Hospitals Birmingham and BT have gone on to bring in the next stage of remote diagnostics and 5G connected ambulances, conducting an immersive experience over virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) glasses. This brings the concept of a 5G Connected Ambulance to life and allows staff back at the hospital to see inside the back of the ambulance. This trial will ultimately work to empower the NHS and you can see a video here:

Liverpool proves opportunity for 5G to power remote social care

Outside of the West Midlands, a 5G testbed in Liverpool has established a private mesh network to address health inequalities that are increasing due to lack of affordable, reliable connectivity.

The testbed has concentrated on a few areas, including using 5G to connect the homes of disadvantaged people who don’t have access to broadband to the internet. In addition, those with serious health conditions have been connected to the hospital so that they can receive a higher quality of care in their homes, avoiding the need for unnecessary conveyancing.

This has enabled those people to live at home safely for longer and increased their independence. In other cases, it has given patients the option to leave hospital earlier thanks to 5G-enabled monitoring equipment in their homes.

Rosemary Kay, Project Director of Liverpool 5G Testbed and Director of the Liverpool City Region eHealth Cluster, said: “The testbed has only looked at devices that will have a positive impact on the way services are being delivered, and improve the health outcomes for local residents.”

Where 5G will help transform healthcare next

West Midlands 5G has been working with NHS practitioners, medtech companies and Ernst & Young to identify seven priority patient journeys where 5G can transform healthcare treatment.

In summary, these areas are where we believe 5G has the strongest potential to transform healthcare in the next decade:

  • Wireless monitoring of vital signs, e.g. blood press or heart rate
  • Remote monitoring of implant sensors
  • Virtual multi-disciplinary video consultations
  • Connected ambulances
  • Remote capsule endoscopy
  • Self-management app for respiratory conditions
  • Resident safety in care homes

By using 5G to spearhead healthcare innovation, the West Midlands is leading the way in improving patient care and transforming healthcare productivity. The outbreak of COVID-19 has only accelerated this process further.

Over the coming months we will be working with healthcare professionals and technology companies on more trials that focus on some of these areas using our new 5G accelerators, known as 5PRING. Organisations within the healthcare space looking to test, prove and scale new 5G services – or those who would benefit from an introduction to 5G technology – should register their interest with 5PRING: https://5pring.org/