Digital Healthcare Show 2022: How 5G is closing healthcare’s digital divide
While the pandemic accelerated digital adoption within health and social care it also highlighted how those in lower-income and remote areas are in danger of being left behind.
For older and vulnerable people in lower-income urban areas, using technology that can help them can be too expensive. While those who live in rural areas simply do not have reliable network connectivity for digital solutions such as online appointments to work efficiently.
These issues are intensified by the UK population living longer lives: dealing with age-related illnesses is a rising problem that requires increased health and social care support yet funding for care in this area has been significantly reduced.
While one solution might be affordable technologies that will allow people to live independently at home if they can, only patients with the means, the technology and the connectivity will be able to do so.
Digital solutions such as video consultations and monitoring devices help hospitals by checking in on patients at home and keeping them out of hospital until necessary, helping the NHS become more proactive than reactive – but they need strong connectivity such as 5G.
Talking at the Digital Healthcare Show Joe McArdle, director of health & medical innovation and transformation at the University of Chester, and director of E-Health cluster Rosemary Kay, presented two 5G use cases that have benefited from a £4 million grant from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) as part of a government initiative that explores how 5G technology benefits growth sectors in the UK like health and social care.
One use-case which is already live is in the neighbourhood of Kensington, Liverpool which has seen 5G cells being installed on lampposts around the area to provide free connectivity.
The other is an ongoing project – the West Mercia Rural 5G project – which looks at providing those in the rural areas of West Mercia with 5G to help bring them much-needed connectivity.
According to Kay, one of the biggest challenges in Liverpool is that communities lack the reliable and affordable internet required to support new and emerging social care technologies.
While digital transformation programmes have increased the quality and responsiveness of services, they have not generated significant cash savings because the increased use of remote tech leads to increased data charges. This means that a larger proportion of health and social care budgets are now spent on connectivity.
On top of that, the digital poverty suffered by those in lower-income areas such as Kensington only increases health inequalities.
“So, what Liverpool has done is essentially developed a community 5G network,” says McArdle. By installing 5G small cells onto lampposts around the Kensington area, it means many can access connectivity, and it also provides a much greater coverage.
It gives health providers the ability to put Wi-Fi units into people’s homes and configure them straight to a free network – allowing people to manage their health independently at home.
To help with cost savings, indie games development and virtual simulation studio, CGA simulation, created a digital twin of Kensington so that those planning the 5G network could accurately plot line-of-site for 5G receivers, assessing the environment and working around obstacles like trees and buildings. This reduced the manual workload and resources required to plan a 5G network and significantly lowered the costs and time required.
Now, the tech that uses the 5G network includes video consultations, telehealth monitoring, mental health apps for children, and a Vitalerter which is a sensor that monitors vital signs of care home residents.
McArdle said that the most challenging part was getting it integrated into services and helping nurses and care workers understand the systems. Plus, at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lack of trust. People were setting fire to 5G cells because of the misconception that they were linked to spreading Covid.
However, providing free connectivity made for huge budgetary savings for healthcare services and, most importantly, it decreased the digital divide. This improved the health and wellbeing of residents, saved local authorities and the NHS money, and allowed targeted care for those who needed it.
West Mercia Rural Project (WMR5G)
Rural areas of England have equal challenges as urban, with pockets of deprivation and challenges of getting people out of their homes. In terms of digital infrastructure, it also lacks coverage and quality from superfast broadband and mobile services that most users have come to expect.
Plus, deployment to rural areas is often expensive, technically difficult, and so commercially unattractive for network operators.
“All of this does not bode well with the increasing demand of the aging population in rural areas for services from the local authorities and clinical commissioning groups,” says McArdle.
With a range of new assistive technologies being developed the WMR5G project aims to address universal connectivity in rural areas as well as enabling new products and enhanced services that will lead to efficiencies in both resources and funding.
McArdle claims that the project will support both the growth in the type and quality of services available in rural areas as well as bring improvements in the quality of life of rural residents.
The key partners on the network side are Airband and BT with further support provided through the Worcestershire 5G testbed. From an infrastructure point of view, the project explores a new model to demonstrate how building mobile networks in rural areas can be done more cost-effectively and at an increased pace.
Besides building a new 5G standalone network, the project aims to make use of access to the public 4G network and private 4G and 5G non-standalone networks to allow users to understand performance across the technologies.
With 5G connectivity, current use cases include handsfree connected cameras, so that GPs can see what is going on in residential care homes, as well as extended reality for muscular exercise before sending patients for physio assessments.
The healthcare professionals also highlighted the challenges in deploying the 5G during the keynote session. These include resistance by the locals to the unattractive 5G towers being built in their area. However, McArdle added that the project team is working with communities on how they could access 5G via alternative means,
However, it could be argued that the benefits of the project compensate for any visual eye sores, as 5G helps close the digital divide and will save on capacity in hospitals and time and money spent on medical staff traveling to rural areas to treat patients.
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