Posted: 01 Apr. 2021 12 min. read

Busting myths around 5G and exploring its applications in health care

By Krissie Ferris, research analyst, and Cornelia Calugar-Pop, manager, technology, media and telecommunications, UK Centre for Health Solutions, Deloitte UK

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated interest in next-generation wireless technologies among global business leaders, according to Deloitte's new global study of advanced wireless adoption. Business leaders surveyed for the report said technologies such as 5G and Wi-Fi 6 are at the heart of their digital transformation efforts, including big data analytics, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things (IoT), cloud, and edge computing.

5G (the fifth generation of cellular technology) is seen by many as the next leap forward in speed for wireless devices. It enables users to download data faster, has greater bandwidth, and can handle more connected devices with much less time lag than earlier cellular networks. 5G—with its faster data download speeds, low latency, reliable connections, and more network lanes for organizing and allocating bandwidth—has the potential to drive numerous advancements, including digital transformation across all industries, including health care.1

As we noted in our 2019 report, Closing the digital gap: Shaping the future of UK health care, 5G technology has the potential to provide a strong foundation for innovation. This can enable the interplay between health sensors, algorithms, and smart devices, and can support telemedicine and remote monitoring more efficiently and cost-effectively.2 More specifically, 5G technology has the capacity to support numerous applications ranging from virtual reality and remote surgery, to drones transporting essential supplies, to real-time health monitoring to IoT-enabled hospital-management systems.3 Over the past year, 5G technologies have also been leveraged to support the COVID-19 response.

Here are five more examples of 5G health care applications in the UK:  

  • Connecting care homes: Care homes in Coventry, England have received contact-free treatment from GPs using 5G technology as part of a trial with West Midlands 5G (WM5G) and Tekihealth—a telemedicine company. Through a 5G connected diagnostics tool, patients receive a full examination, with real-time information sent to the general practioner. This results in less physical contact, limiting the risk of being exposed to the coronavirus, but also releases travel time allowing the doctors to treat more patients.4
  • Telepharmacy: PAMAN is being piloted by the Liverpool City Council to enable pharmacists to observe patients taking medication though a video-audio Medihub in the patient’s home. The Medihub is linked via the internet to the pharmacy or monitoring center.5
  • Emergency response: The East of England ambulance trust is working with the O2, Visonable and Launchcloud to equip ambulances with 5G-enabled video technology that enables consultants to video link with paramedics, for fast, accurate assessments and treatment in ambulances.6
  • Remote imagingNHS Forth Valley and Moorfields Eye Hospital is trialing remote eye examinations in 4K resolution using 5G broadbandTests have demonstrated that an eye image of high enough quality to be used in a clinical environment and can be streamed in real time using the 5G technology.7
  • 5G clinic: Vodafone has worked with the University Hospital Düsseldorf to establish a 5G clinic that can test new, more efficient approaches to health care services such as surgery rehearsal remote access to expertise. This can make it possible for rural clinics to provide access to expert treatment without patients or clinicians needing to travel.8

Public misperceptions of 5G

To understand whether 5G and other cellular mobile technologies are safe, it is important to understand how mobile networks work. As with 3G and 4G, 5G networks consist of a nationwide grid of cell sites that generate radio waves from transmitters. The radio waves encode data received by 5G-enabled technologies—such as 5G-enabled phones. Radio waves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum, and are a form of low-energy, low-frequency radiation. At the other end of the electromagnetic spectrum are the high-frequency, high energy, ionising radio waves such as x-rays, gamma rays, and some types of ultraviolet light. These ionising radio waves can affect cellular activity and DNA, potentially leading to cancer. However, it is unlikely that 5G, non-ionising radio waves will affect anyone’s health.9

There will always be a small number of people who are convinced that wireless technologies are harmful. During times of uncertainty, social media can provide a mechanism for conspiracy theories to flourish and proliferate. For example, a UK Deloitte consumer poll conducted in May 2020 found that a fifth or more of adults—in six out of the 14 countries—agreed with the statement “I believe there are health risks associated with 5G.” Our colleagues in the Technology, Media, and Telecommunications (TMT) group expect these fears will continue to grow. By 2021, they predict between 10 to 20% of adults in many advanced economies will mistakenly believe that 5G could harm their health.10

In the UK, Public Health England (PHE), now part of the National Institute of Health Protection (NIHP), leads on health matters associated with radio waves (i.e., radiofrequency electromagnetic fields) and has a duty to advise government on any concerns over health effects caused by radio emissions. PHE’s view is that “the overall exposure is expected to remain low relative to guidelines and, as such, there should be no consequences for public health.”11 In addition, Ofcom, the regulator for communications services, has carried out radio frequency electromagnetic field (EMF) measurements near mobile phone base stations for many years, including 5G-enabled mobile base stations in various towns and cities across the UK. It found that at every site, emissions were a small fraction of the levels set by the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protections.12

Enabling 5G to transform the future of health care

In order for 5G to reach its full, disruptive potential, public concerns about safety should be addressed. The telecom industry, together with government communication bodies and science programs should work together to counter the misinformation and provide an evidence based narrative, to educate all user groups, including those with low levels of digital literacy.

If you are interested in further exploring how 5G technology can improve patient and staff outcomes, see our Deloitte Health Tech Catalyst webinar on Digital Transformation in Healthcare, where we hear from Adrian Smith, Health and Social Care Solutions lead, West Midlands 5G.

Endnotes

1.        https://www2.deloitte.com/iq/en/pages/technology-media-and-telecommunications/articles/will-5G-remake-the-world-or-make-it-faster.html/

2.        https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/uk/Documents/life-sciences-health-care/deloitte-uk-shaping-the-future-of-european-healthcare.pdf

3.        https://newscentre.vodafone.co.uk/app/uploads/2020/11/Vodafone-5G-Health-Report.pdf

4.        https://www.wmca.org.uk/news/care-home-residents-benefit-from-uk-s-first-5g-remote-diagnosis-and-monitoring-trial-allowing-full-access-to-gp-care/

5.        https://themedicationsupportcompany.co.uk/about-paman/

6.        https://news.o2.co.uk/press-release/o2-developing-smart-ambulance-trial-to-revolutionise-patient-treatment-and-reduce-hospital-numbers/

7.        https://5g.co.uk/news/examination-of-an-eye-using-5g-broadband/5048/

8.        https://www2.deloitte.com/uk/en/pages/life-sciences-and-healthcare/articles/life-sciences-and-health-care-predictions.html

9.        https://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/insights/industry/technology/technology-media-and-telecom-predictions/2021/5g-radiation-dangers-health-concerns.html

10.     https://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/insights/industry/technology/technology-media-and-telecom-predictions/2021/5g-radiation-dangers-health-concerns.html

11.     https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/mobile-phone-base-stations-radio-waves-and-health/mobile-phone-base-stations-radio-waves-and-health

12.     What is 5G? - Ofcom and https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0015/190005/emf-test-summary.pdf

13.     https://www2.deloitte.com/cn/en/pages/technology-media-and-telecommunications/articles/tmt-predictions-2021-5g-radiation-dangers-health-concerns.html

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