The latest standard of broadband technology continues to make waves in 2021. But what about medtech?
Sean Whooley, Associate Editor
Wireless tech companies such as Qualcomm are predicting download speeds as high as 10 gigabits per second as next-generation 5G cellular networks roll out worldwide.
The open question in medtech is how quickly companies will take advantage of the super-speedy connectivity for their own products.
“5G is about bringing more capacity and speed to the pipes,” said Don Jones, a member of the advisory council at BrightInsight and a veteran of the digital healthcare space. Jones spent more than 11 years building Qualcomm’s healthcare group.
“What you have to analyze is, ‘Can healthcare take advantage of what essentially amounts to these bigger pipes?’ Because more data can be shoved through them with more speed,” Jones said during a recent interview with Medical Design & Outsourcing.
Put into practice, those increased speeds and “pipe” sizes can bring data together to enable everything from robotic telesurgery to better decision-making on vital therapies such as drug delivery.
An evolution toward 5G
For now, 4G technology adequately supports telehealth, according to Philips connected care connectivity leader Phil Raymond. But Raymond expects new medical technologies to develop as 5G lowers latency and download delays, plus high bandwidth and high numbers of connected devices.
“The road to 5G will be an evolutionary process that will follow technology rollout and accompanying new care paradigms that drive innovative disruption in existing care models,” Raymond said.
Some 5G-based applications have already made their way into medtech as the COVID-19 pandemic sped up the adoption of telehealth and remote monitoring. Wearable biosensor patches and other wireless technologies, along with the 5G-powered Internet of Things (IoT) have benefitted from the scale of cloud storage and computing power enabled by 5G already, Raymond noted.
“Wireless connectivity is pervasive today in healthcare, but with the advanced capabilities and features within 5G, it will be a foundational component of delivering on the promise of the ‘quadruple aim’ of enhancing the patient experience, improving health outcomes, lowering the cost of care and improving the work life of care providers,” he said.
Jones pointed out that ResMed and Philips each have 25 million CPAP machines wirelessly connected through cell phone chips on the market today, indicating that the structure for a higher level of connectivity is already in place.
“The interesting part is beginning to figure out ways that [medtech companies] can use the communications capabilities to add more services,” Jones said. “It’s a question of how far they want to go with the capabilities.”
Ushering in robotic telesurgery
Robotic telesurgery could be one of the most obvious areas that could benefit from 5G. Simply put, there’s a lot of data involved when surgeons are controlling a robot from a remote location.
AVRA Medical Robotics CEO Barry Cohen in an end-of-2020 letter wrote that, as the company looks to meet modern requirements of robotic-assisted healthcare, 5G may be a game-changer.
“The company is exploring remote operations for its intelligent robotic system for medical procedures using the new 5G mobile network at a time when social distancing, even in the spaces reserved for surgical and medical work, has never been more important,” Cohen said. “The effectiveness of 5G has reduced the latency issue encountered in the early days of remote robotic surgery operations, a significant and potentially life-saving improvement.”
Corindus, which Siemens Healthineers acquired for $1 billion in 2019, has been a pioneer in the robotic telesurgery space. Former Corindus COO and current innovation advisor Doug Teany sees 5G enabling the movement of large data packages with edge computing between a Siemens imaging system and a Corindus robotic system.
This would allow robotic telesurgery system users to pull information for a patient, preprocess that information (with images of the heart or arteries or other areas) and deliver it in a way that offers warnings of potential complications or specifications for a patient’s anatomy.
“Technologies and advancements in image-guided robotics that are enabled by 5G will truly change the quality of care you get,” Teany said. “Then we move to safer, targeted options that are more prescriptive to the patient themselves, and the risk of remote care will be removed. We’re excited about those possibilities.”
Teany acknowledged that cybersecurity poses a hurdle. Higher levels of security tend to slow networks down, somewhat negating the impact of 5G. But as advances continue, Teany is optimistic that security snags will be overcome.
“The world is evolving to maneuver around these continual threats and these continual considerations for cybersecurity and it’s getting better,” Teany said. “So, I think we’ll all benefit from that. There’s only a path forward, not a path backward for the issue of cybersecurity.”
Enabling more automated insulin delivery
Jones recalls how major diabetes technology developer Dexcom brought him in years ago to help move them toward developing connected devices. The networkable continuous glucose monitor (CGM) developed by Dexcom, currently the G6 (with a G7 in development), can connect with a number of other insulin- or diabetes-related devices, like a Bluetooth-connected pen from Novo Nordisk or a pump from Tandem Diabetes Care.
Faster communications through 5G could help companies overcome some of the safety challenges involved in what has been a holy grail for the diabetes tech space: automated insulin delivery.
“We’re going to have a more complex world of sensors that are intercommunicating and that’s where 5G will start to be of help, for two reasons,” Jones said. “First, in a local area, the 5G allows a lot of computing and interconnectivity to not clog the cellular network. Then, when it needs to go to the cloud, it can go much faster.”
Other major medtech companies including Medtronic anticipate that 5G will make a big difference and are keeping a close eye on technology developments.
“From our perspective, the increased bandwidth, faster speeds and lower power associated with 5G cellular networks offer interesting possibilities for improved connectivity between pumps, sensors, peripherals, digital health devices and cloud services,” said Ali Dianaty, VP of product innovation for Medtronic’s diabetes business.
Dianaty told MDO in a statement: “We continue to monitor technologies like 5G for the potential impact they can have on the way we can help make living with diabetes easier while producing better outcomes.”