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5G for healthcare: The big picture

  • 4 minute read
  • Published by Joann O'Brien on 25 Jun 2021
  • Last modified 25 Jun 2021
It is not surprising that healthcare is one of the most promising markets for 5G services as communications service providers (CSPs) turn their attention away from B2C use cases and toward B2B. In 2020 alone, healthcare spending was expected to reach $10 trillion, so operators simply cannot afford to overlook the sector’s potential.

This article was first pusblished on TM Forum's Inform site, and is an extract from a recent TM Forum Report 5G for healthcare which delves into the opportunities and challenges are in digitizing healthcare. Download it now for the full insight.

Over the last five years a wide range of 5G-enabled healthcare concepts have been touted, from the minor social media hit featuring a surgeon in London performing live surgery on a banana in California to 5G-powered hospitals and remote patient monitoring. Even so, those of us who have been observing the mobile communications business for the last 20 years can be forgiven for taking a cautious view. Back in the early days of 3G there was a surge of interest in “mobile health”, but the opportunity came and went. Today, the healthcare sector benefits hugely from mobile communications, but most applications are built on top of the mobile network, offering no role for CSPs.

Why will 5G be different?

To explain why CSPs may be able to play a larger role in 5G-enable healthcare services, it is important to understand the huge scale and complexity of the healthcare ecosystem. For operators to succeed, they will need to experiment by partnering with private and public organizations from across the healthcare ecosystem. For Tier 1 telcos this could mean partnering with both national healthcare providers and global pharmaceutical and digital healthcare firms.

Our analysis of the 5G healthcare projects and trials that mobile operators have undertaken so far demonstrates the wide diversity of the sector. Connected ambulances feature prominently in trials and proofs of concept, along with the deployment of 5G networks within hospitals and on hospital campuses. Devices and technology are also diverse, with initiatives featuring the use of drones and virtual and augmented reality headsets.

Many promised 5G capabilities like ultra-low latency and network slicing will only be possible with the deployment of new core networks based on standalone 5G standards, which is expected throughout this year. A limited number of mobile private networks have been deployed using a combination of standalone networks and partnerships with mobile operators, where the networks are an extension of the macro cellular network.

Multi-access edge computing (MEC) also gives CSPs an opportunity to deliver low-latency services such as IoT and computing to healthcare facilities. Operators are figuring out their plans for MEC, with many opting to partner with one or more hyperscale cloud providers.

Picking a strategy

At some stage, CSPs will need to decide whether they want to deliver end-to-end solutions in healthcare or settle for an enabling role. Today only a handful of telcos operate healthcare solutions businesses:

  • Canadian CSP TELUS’s subsidiary TELUS Health provides digital healthcare solutions for general practitioners and specialists.
  • Orange’s Enovacom specializes in helping healthcare providers leverage patient, administrative and financial data.
  • Telenor established a healthcare care service in Bangladesh in 2016 to provide affordable healthcare information and consulting.

Many operators will likely decide that the most realistic strategy is playing the role of an enabler of healthcare services. This could be as simple as providing connectivity. Interest is growing in connectivity-as-a-service (CaaS), which is an approach to delivering connectivity that makes it as easy for enterprises or developers to consume as cloud computing.

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated digital transformation of CSPs and is revitalizing digitization of healthcare. This is likely to happen through a combination of disruption from technology players and newly found enthusiasm from existing healthcare providers. In either case, CSPs have an opportunity to demonstrate solutions and capabilities for healthcare.

TM Forum is a global industry association for service providers and their suppliers in the telecommunications industry.