Healthcare providers and emergency services operators such as the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust are keeping a keen eye on the upcoming 5G mobile broadband service – to see how it can help them react faster and more precisely.
Building on existing 3G and 4G, 5G improves on the older technology with better performance at every level, providing substantially higher speeds and lower network delays. Those features are expected to make a big difference for data-hungry health apps.
Other emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, wearables and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, will be used with 5G to support health professionals wherever they might be.
Instead of IoT, you could call it the Internet of Medical Things or IoMT.
At a personal level, 5G connected wearables that can collect large amounts of data promises to provide a far more complete picture of individuals' health, allowing them to take action before anything goes wrong. That data ranges from heartbeat, blood pressure, oxygen and glucose levels and more – processed in cloud-based systems
Overcoming limited bandwidth and latency hurdles opens up 5G for new healthcare ideas.
In early adopter Finland, trials using 5G-connected virtual reality (VR) goggles assist stroke rehabilitation by checking patients' eyes for missing parts of their field-of-vision – using a shoot 'em-up game.
It's still early days but wearables and smartphones are helping people improve their health by monitoring vital statistics as well as exercise and mindfulness routines.
Wearables are also already advanced enough to interpret when potentially life-threatening events occur and can alert emergency services if needed.
Should that happen, a more accurate location service that 5G provides will help first responders find those who need help faster.
Ambulances and paramedics can transmit detailed images and video of an event along with patient information; they can receive responses, support quickly and with low delays using 5G.
5G base stations will mean more reliable connections as they are able to intelligently shape the radio signals to lock onto devices better.
Being able to send and receive large files quickly is a must for healthcare professionals – and this will become even more important as the amount of data collected by medical sensors and scanners increase. Again, 5G that offers almost fibre-like throughput will make a big difference.
Vodafone chief executive Jason Paris stressed it was important to understand that 5G is already here and having an impact throughout the world.
"5G is starting to shape the future of every sector," the telco boss said.
"In health with connected ambulances and remote surgery, in manufacturing with automated factories and in utilities with smart waste management or intelligent electricity networks.
"It's starting to benefit communities around the world and deliver social-good outcomes, for example through improved e-learning capabilities. We want all businesses and organisations to see what 5G can do for them."
Large amounts of health data can be transmitted fast over 5G but it could also overwhelm those who have to sift through it all for diagnostics.
Instead, it looks like machines will help us heal. Research points to AI being used alongside human doctors to help interpret detailed medical images and making diagnoses.
More studies are needed to verify that, but the point is not that "Robodoc" will take over the surgery. Instead, human doctors will have more time with patients, as AI takes over the arduous task of examining medical scans.
Telecare and elderly care is expected to benefit from 5G's better performance, and less costly mass market sensors. The authorities in Taiwan's capital Taipei are building a healthcare platform integrating biometric monitoring, tracking and alerting of abnormal events along with education and medical assistance for patients with chronic conditions.
Being able to perform remotely-controlled surgeries with physicians operating robots becomes a possibility thanks to the lower latency of 5G.
China claims it is already performing telesurgery on subjects thousands of kilometres away over 5G networks.
While adoption of 5G-powered technologies can undoubtedly improve healthcare accessibility, responsiveness and outcomes, challenges remain.
As 5G-connected wearables and monitoring systems collect increasing amounts of health data, that information has to be kept safe and secure, with strict privacy guidelines.
Sensitive medical information attracts commercial interests such as marketers and insurers as they seek to make their businesses more efficient.
Then there are outright criminals wanting to capitalise on medical data through fraud and blackmail. Without rock-solid privacy, people's trust in connected healthcare will be undermined.
Privacy concerns apart, the healthcare sector is expected to form a major component of the "5G economy", thought to reach over $1 trillion in sales in a decade.
For New Zealand, 5G promises improved healthcare in regional areas, allowing patients and medical professionals to communicate with each other more efficiently and apps enabling monitoring and basic diagnoses.
That's an opportunity for New Zealand developers to build technologies that will make a vast difference for people who might find it difficult to gain treatment.