The 5G Revolution in Health Care is Here
If “necessity is the mother of invention,” then the COVID-19 pandemic is the mother of a large brood, indeed. From developing a vaccine in just one year, to making innovations in drone delivery, the U.S. has met the crisis with innovation and progress. Perhaps the greatest among our successes is hospitals’ early efforts to minimize in-person visits by helping patients access virtual care through telemedicine. A striking example is NYU Langone Health in New York City, which saw a 683% bump in virtual urgent care and a massive spike of 4,345% in nonurgent virtual visits between March and April 2020.
The pandemic may be winding down, but there’s no reason innovation should follow suit. In a post pandemic world, the U.S. should look to build on its successes. And the best way to do that is to ramp up 5G development and deployment across the country.
To build on telemedicine innovations that helped us transition health care from the hospital to our homes, our telecommunications infrastructure needs a boost. 5G offers this by improving internet speeds, bandwidth and reducing latency — all critical factors when, as in medical emergencies, every second counts. Yet current gaps in broadband infrastructure in hospitals and potential delays in FCC mid-band auctions stand in the way.
Not only do these setbacks keep hospitals from offering the best possible care, they also hold our nation back from massive economic expansion. For every six months 5G deployment is delayed, the U.S. misses out on nearly $25 billion in growth.
A recent study by CTIA and Boston Consulting Group shows the benefits of 5G implementation would be huge. We’re talking $1.5 trillion in economic growth and 4.5 million new jobs within the next decade. The idea that we could see this level of growth over the next ten years for a country that’s currently reeling from the effects of a global pandemic seems too good to be true. But the power of 5G is already delivering. Telemedicine is estimated to account for over $29.3 billion of medical services in September of 2020, spurred on by the pandemic. This is expected to grow as telemedicine moves from being a novel technology to a service standard. The $250 billion of current health care spending can be virtualized, and the industry can expand by $105 billion, adding 341,000 new health jobs, according to CTIA/Boston Consulting.
Telemedicine as a service includes anything that allows medical workers to communicate with each other or serve patients. These technologies were underutilized before the pandemic, with about 0.1% of Medicare beneficiaries’ visits using a telemedicine session in March 2020. This changed dramatically by April, when telemedicine accounted for 43.5% of sessions involving Medicare beneficiaries. This sudden growth was bad for bandwidth (how fast data transfers) and caused high latency as well (delay time in data transfers). 5G seeks to remove these issues and provide a more reliable foundation for future health innovations.
The revolution is here, but we’ve still got a long way to go. Many hospitals struggle with creating reliable broadband connections, which worsen as services leave the building. This means some rural health services are completely cut-off from telemedicine, depriving millions of patients with chronic illnesses of the same quality of service as urban/suburban areas. This is made worse when over 150 million Americans have poor internet connection.
5G reduces latency times and generates greater bandwidths for customers. But at the moment, it’s primarily concentrated around cities where infrastructure is easier to set up and test. By expanding the auctioning of mid-band frequencies and allowing more companies to build 5G infrastructure, the FCC could foster 5G development all over the US.
The FCC has already made efforts toward this goal by removing restrictive regulations on investment in new networks and by updating how equipment can be attached to current infrastructure. The best thing the FCC can do now is to continue auctioning off mid-band spectrum. The United States leads other countries in low and high-band deployment but lacks in mid-band deployment.
5G has the power to completely transform our economy as well as our healthcare system. To ensure we stay on track to reap these benefits, the FCC should continue auctioning mid-band spectrum and policy makers should reform current telemedicine regulations to ensure easier integration of 5G-enabled telemedicine technology.
The next tech revolution is here. America should lead the charge.
Luke Ashton is an economics graduate student at George Mason University focusing on entrepreneurship, health, and innovative technology. You can follow him on twitter @LiberLuke.