Embedding telecoms into post-pandemic healthcare

doctor patient virtual consultation

The telecommunications market has been inward-looking for most of its history, focusing on the technology transitions and what it allows people and businesses to do. Now it’s beginning to shift that emphasis to the industries that telecoms serve and how it needs to adapt. Tackling one market at a time is the only realistic approach, and healthcare (including social care) is an industry that impacts every body in different ways at different points in our lives. 

To understand how telecoms and healthcare can interact, it is essential to start with the industry structure and how the technology available for each element can be implemented to facilitate change.

Healthcare infrastructure: From centralized to localized

For many people, healthcare consists of occasional and temporary interactions. For others, it involves on-going appointments, tests, care, and treatments. The sector, like the telecoms industry, demands high quality, secure devices to deliver its services. These devices continue to break new limits of analysis, which in turn generate vast volumes of data. The tendency had been to centralize activities into ever-expanding medical facilities, requiring people to travel to receive consultations and treatment. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was beginning to witness a shift away from these larger medical facilities and a trend towards more localized delivery of care. The availability of broadband, fixed and mobile was undoubtedly one of the most significant contributors to this trend. In addition, the increasing power of consumer electronics acting as proxies for medical-grade devices was growing. The sensors available on smart devices (e.g., wearables, smartphones, smart speakers), along with the powerful impact of health trackers, have made the medical industry embrace these formerly dismissed technologies.

The cultural barriers overcome during the pandemic regarding doctors and patients accepting video-based consultation should not be underestimated.

The pandemic has also forced medical practitioners to embrace remote technology and video, especially since face-to-face appointments have become challenging. This varies by healthcare area, but for example, a renal consultant told me his video consultations have gone from 5 to 90 percent (and some doctors report 100 percent). We will undoubtedly swing back to more face-to-face interactions in the future, but the critical breakthrough has been made to give patients and doctors alike the confidence to use the technology. Some medical authorities still insist on proprietary security video platforms to protect patients’ privacy and keep data within hospital systems, with applications such as Zoom and Teams being used only for internal meetings.

If we had suffered this pandemic ten years ago, this shift to telemedicine would not have been possible. Fortunately, the reliability of broadband combined with the ubiquity of high-resolution cameras and high-quality audio facilitates these interactions and provides a far more efficient service for all parties.

What the future of healthcare can build upon is the ability to bring a high level of expertise and analysis into everyone’s homes. This may smack of Big Brother, but it is a matter of balance as with any technological advance. For example, the benefits of monitoring an older adult in their own home both by relations and the medical profession have potentially massive positive financial implications. 

Can private networks help deliver services to the most vulnerable communities?

Early 5G hype was around remote surgery and leveraging the low latency and high bandwidth of new mobile generations. While these benefits will gradually materialize, it is the more mundane set of services that will have an early impact. For example, the Liverpool 5G Hub initiative uses a one-way video device to allow carers to monitor people taking their daily medication – resulting in both patients getting the right treatment and reducing wasted medicines. 

The Liverpool example is also important for another reason: it is delivered over a private 5G network. Hopefully, this will be a blueprint for other healthcare authorities to bring effective services into communities. As an industry, we tend to think of the latest smartphones and the shift to an even bigger or unlimited data package. In reality, many of the most vulnerable people in society have little or no access to those services. Increasing the digital poverty gap seems inevitable unless an intervention of this kind takes place. Liverpool is now looking at bringing their private network together with cellular offerings to build out the service. Once again, it is not a question of one or the other but a blend of public and private, which will deliver a community solution.

The assumption is often that increased smartphone penetration is the answer to this problem. The Internet of Things brings a myriad of other devices into play. A simple movement monitor can inform a carer that an individual is active and moving around their home. Sensors in beds, doors, floors, and even embedded into prosthetic limbs can all feed information back to families, specialists, and authorities as appropriate. Most of these require small amounts of bandwidth. The key thing is that the technology in terms of devices and connectivity is affordable. As always, who pays is an issue, but the Liverpool example shows that local government can deploy private networks to deliver this at a sensible price.

Financial barriers aren’t the only concern for telcos

These solutions may not provide the boom in revenue that the telecoms industry has been expecting. It is, however, a relatively straightforward path to delivering a future-proof healthcare system. Technology does not have to have an extra zero on the price tag just because it is medical. Governments will have to intervene to different degrees depending on their respective healthcare systems, but the technology is available and affordable. 

The cultural barriers overcome during the pandemic regarding doctors and patients accepting video-based consultation should not be underestimated.  And whether the shift from city to more rural living is a temporary reaction to the pandemic, it is supported by the ubiquitous broadband initiatives of most governments around the world. 

My initial analysis of telecoms’ potential in healthcare had assumed it would be built on an individual‘s mobile and/or fixed broadband subscriptions. I now believe that community networks, private authority networks like that in Liverpool, or even an MVNO for the sector will help deliver and maintain healthcare services. Multiple new business models will be evaluated under 5G. Healthcare is no different, with a range of essential services that can benefit from fresh thinking about how the technologies can be brought to the people rather than how people have to go to the technology.

The telecoms industry’s lesson is clear: allowing the healthcare industry’s processes and systems to exploit the power of communications in their own way is vital. We should not fall into the old trap where technology restricted activities. When asking medical professionals about how technology and especially 5G might change their particular role, they assume that the connectivity will be there. COVID-19 has certainly accelerated the shift to digital healthcare. Still, the telecoms industry now needs to ensure that all stakeholders deliver against the promise of ubiquitous high-quality connectivity to facilitate society’s future vision.

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