5G, IoT technology to transform health and social care

Research from UK operator shows how advanced connected technologies offer a pathway to a flexible model of healthcare delivered at the point of patient need

As the Covid-19 pandemic brought about new and unforeseen challenges such as showing how health agencies, such as the NHS in the UK, need to accelerate change to keep up with this new normal, research from Vodafone has indicated the crucial role 5G and IoT technology could play in helping transform health and social care.

Vodafone’s Better health, connected health: How 5G and IoT technology can transform health and social care report, surveyed 2,000 people in September 2020 and found a high level of public comfort with new technology, and strong support for many of the new possibilities digital technology opens up in the NHS and social care systems.

The study put into context the way in which the new technologies are used and how Covid-19 forced the NHS in England, and healthcare systems around the world, to change rapidly.

As it dealt with the influx of coronavirus cases, and the rapid expansion of capacity through new Nightingale hospitals, the NHS also had to find ways to deal with patients seeking help with a wide range of conditions without coming into direct contact with them. This led to a huge acceleration in the NHS’s transformation towards greater use of digital technology – something that was already under way before Covid-19 but has been catalysed by it.

The study noted that in March, behind the scenes, the workplace collaboration platform Microsoft Teams was rolled out to all NHS organisations, and a national agreement was signed for use of the video consultation platform Attend Anywhere, enabling outpatient appointments to be carried out remotely. Mobile network operators including Vodafone zero-rated Attend Anywhere calls so that customers could use the service without it affecting their data usage limits.

With 5G solutions and services having been trialled in the NHS since 2019, covering virtual-reality assisted diagnostics among other use cases, the survey found that three-fifths of those studied support the use of 5G remote assisted surgery and drone technology. The same percentage believe that video consultations are more convenient than visiting a GP surgery or hospital in person. Over 70% indicated that they believe that it is important for new hospitals to be 5G connected.

Vodafone quoted data from the Royal College of GPs suggests that in the four weeks to 12 April, 71% of routine GP consultations took place remotely compared to around 26% face-to-face – a reversal of the figures for the same period a year ago, even though the demand for remote consultations is likely to be less urgent when the risk of Covid-19 recedes, and many patients would still prefer to see their doctor in person, the report argued that the convenience of remote appointments is likely to mean that they will remain more commonly used than they were before the pandemic.

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The Royal College of GPs says that it envisages a 50-50 balance between face-to-face and remote appointments in future, and a British Medical Association survey found that almost nine out of 10 GPs want to carry on holding consultations remotely once the pandemic has ended.

The survey revealed an increased willingness to use video calling technology for health appointments and Vodafone believes that the increased use of video calls in many areas of life in recent months may have helped to build confidence in using the technology.

It found 57% would be comfortable having some medical appointments via online video consultation rather than going to a hospital or surgery even once the coronavirus pandemic is over, with just 26% disagreeing.

Not surprisingly, younger people were notably more likely than older people to be enthusiastic about remote consultations, with 64% of 18-34-year-olds and 62% of 35-54-year-olds saying they would be comfortable with having them after the pandemic is over. But even in the over-55s, 49% were comfortable with the idea, compared to 35% uncomfortable.

Huge positivity

Overall, the survey indicated huge positivity towards usage of the new technologies. For example, 60% said that they would like to see more usage of remote-assisted surgery, enabling a specialist surgeon to assist and oversee an operation remotely from a different hospital using a secure and reliable 5G video link and augmented reality technology. As many as 80% wanted to see 5G-connected ambulances, enabling doctors to examine and diagnose emergency patients before they arrive at the hospital.

As well as looking at how technology can transform healthcare in the future, the report also gives policy recommendations for the Government to commit to making the NHS more technologically advanced.

Vodafone said these long and short term recommendations will be vital in ensuring that change is actually made such as investing £1.5bn to bring 5G to every hospital in England and encourage the creation of 5G healthcare applications through regional innovation centres, as well as increasing the number of drone trials in the UK with a fund of £30m.

Commenting on the findings of the report, Flann Horgan, vice-president, healthcare at consulting and IT services firm NTT DATA said 5G has the potential to be transformative for healthcare. “Its near-zero latency, combined with ultra-fast connection speeds, is critical for seamlessly integrating a range of technologies into the healthcare infrastructure,” he said.

“This includes real-time wireless vital-signs monitoring of patients in their homes or in transit in addition to seamless data-sharing between medical professionals.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has showcased how healthcare can move at pace to embrace new technologies. This agility in the healthcare sector will be one of the key legacies of the pandemic. It will encourage a continuous focus on innovation as the industry looks for new ways to improve outcomes for patients and healthcare professionals across the board.”

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