Telehealth has been a topic of conversation for about two decades, and now University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust and BT have demonstrated that it is beginning to be a reality.
Using the recently launched BT 5G network in the city of Birmingham and surrounding area, the two parties demonstrated communications over a 5G-connected ambulance, combining virtual, augmented and robotic technology.
BT says such technology has the potential to transform healthcare services and deliver significant cost savings by reducing the number of patient trips to hospitals.
Following the UK’s first demonstration of a remotely controlled ultrasound scan over the 5G network at the same venue in June, the latest demo was hosted at the Medical Devices Testing and Evaluation Centre in the trust’s simulation lab, located in its Institute of Translational Medicine.
In the demo, clinicians were able to assess and diagnose a patient remotely – viewing medical records, taking vital signs and ultrasound scans – from a 5G-connected ambulance, provided by South Central Ambulance NHS Foundation Trust, that was located over two miles away.
Two scenarios were tested. In the first, the hospital-based clinician – a consultant in anaesthetics and critical medicine, wearing a specially equipped virtual reality (VR) headset – could visualise exactly what the paramedic could see in the ambulance. Using a joystick, he was able to remotely direct the paramedic in real time to perform scans, as well as get close-up views of the wounds and injuries of a patient.
The clinician did this by telling the paramedic to look in a particular direction, or, in the case of a scan, sending control signals over the live 5G network to a robotic or “haptic” glove worn by the paramedic. The glove creates small vibrations that direct the paramedic’s hand to where the clinician wants the ultrasound sensor to be moved, controlling the sensor position remotely, and seeing the images in real time.
A camera in the ambulance transmitted a high-definition view of the inside of the ambulance, the paramedic and the patient. Together with live feeds of the patient’s ultrasound scan, the clinician was able to recognise vital signs and view medical records in real time via the VR headset, providing an immersive experience.
The upshot was that the clinician had more information on which to base a diagnosis and prepare the hospital so that it was ready to receive the patient with the appropriate resources.
In the second scenario, the clinician was able to use the BT 5G network to get a very high-resolution video feed in the ambulance in order to make a diagnosis on a knife wound. There were two possible options once the doctor was able to look at the wound in fine detail – either go directly to hospital or treat the patient in the ambulance.
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Paramedics in the ambulance used augmented reality (AR) glasses to take pictures of the wound. In the demo, the doctor could advise on ambulance treatment, thus saving the patient hours of waiting in hospital and, as this was happening, records of the wound and treatment were sent automatically to a district nurse who could follow up with the patient at home.
The consultant making the hospital-based demonstrations stressed that despite the cutting-edge nature of the BT 5G technology and the associated VR and AR headsets, cost was not an issue. “The price is right down the bottom bracket,” he said. “The doll [used as the patient in the demo] costs around £10,000 and the ventilator [in the hospital ward] costs around £50,000. The challenge is bringing the technology into healthcare.”
Dave Rosser, chief executive of University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, said: “We are excited by the huge potential of 5G technology and how it can help transform healthcare in the future. We believe it has the potential to create more efficient use of healthcare resources, particularly with regard to easing the burden on A&E services, which are facing unprecedented demand.
“At present, the urgent care system is based on an antiquated model and our centres are dealing with huge numbers of patients every day. The characteristics of 5G mean it should provide many advantages, including speeding up diagnoses for patients and potentially reducing the number of ambulance and A&E department visits.
“In particular, being able to perform diagnoses remotely means a doctor or clinician could determine an appropriate care pathway without necessarily having to see someone in hospital.”