Mark Denton: 4 minute read

Health and Social Care: 5G as revolutionary as electricity?

Many analysts believe the move to 5G will be as revolutionary as electricity, with many commenting we spent the last 30 years connecting people; but we will spend the next 30 years connecting things. What will the impact be for social care?


What is 5G?

You’re probably used to the periodic upgrades of our mobile networks. There was 2G, which came along in 1991, replaced with 3G in 2001, followed by 4G in 2009. Now we’re hearing about the coming of 5G, which is a much bigger leap than what’s come before. With 5G the speeds are dramatically increased. They will be up to 20 times as fast with a latency (the delay in which it takes for data to arrive) one-tenth as long. Simply put, 5G means faster internet connections with huge capacity.


What impact is 5G likely to have?

5G wireless networks will provide the connectivity backbone for the mainstreaming of self-driving cars and Internet of Things with interconnected devices. For example, with 5G, we can invest in efficient smart cities; for example, traffic management systems could become much smarter, with traffic signals changing based on real-time traffic patterns monitored by a variety of cameras and sensors.


Is 5G safe?

The potential fly in the ointment is concerns over safety. Some campaigners have called for a ban and some local authorities have stopped the deployment of 5G in their area until further testing has taken place.  Public opposition appears to focus on two characteristics of 5G networks:

Firstly wavelength, 5G will be at lower frequencies than 4G and some are concerned about the health risks of long-term use.

Secondly, 5G systems will rely on a multitude of antennas mounted closer to the public, often on utility poles running along public streets. The public will be much closer to antennas then before. The good news is they operate at much lower power levels than "macro" cells used by present systems, which are typically located on tops of buildings in urban areas.

So, is there a risk? The UK government says "while a small increase in overall exposure to radio waves is possible when 5G is added to the existing network, the overall exposure is expected to remain low". The frequency range of the 5G signals being introduced is within the non-ionising band of the electromagnetic spectrum and well below those considered harmful by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation (ICNIRP) 

"The exposure that 5G will produce has been considered in great depth by ICNIRP, with the restrictions set well below the lowest level of 5G-related radio frequency that has been shown to cause harm," says Prof Croft.

The WHO says electromagnetic frequency exposures below the limits recommended in the ICNIRP guidelines do not appear to have any known consequence on health.

Public Health England said it is committed to monitoring the evidence applicable to this and other radio technologies, and to revising its advice, should that be necessary.


How could 5G impact Health and Social Care

The demand for health and social care services is increasing as the population ages. Expectations of what healthcare and social care systems should deliver are also growing, with digital technology viewed as being a key part of the solution. 5G will be part of the solution in health and social care. Due to budgetary constraints, we believe this move will take longer to embed into health and social care.  However, we believe over the next five years, new ways of working (that are possible because they are be supported by 5G) will make the mainstream in Health and Social Care. 

The smart home with constant connection will enable the public to stay connected, have online check-ups and be monitored via sensors to ensure they get support at the right time. This can have a significant impact with data highlighting when an individual is at risk of a fall so that appropriate support can be delivered, and crisis averted.


A joint report on 5G launched

A joint report has been launched, to which it is urging the government to consider a series of recommendations to ‘harness’ the capabilities of 5G networks in health and social care. Tech UK – the tech trade body – and the Liverpool 5G Testbed, part of the UK government’s 5G Testbeds and Trials programme, have co-authored a report highlighting how 5G can support the ‘transformation of future health and social care applications and services’.

Building on the experiences of the Liverpool 5G testbed, the report highlights how 5G can benefit the sector; from transforming some of the ways in which citizens interact with their own health care management, to enabling professionals to remotely monitor patients.

The report concludes with six recommendations to the Government on how to effectively harness 5G in health and social care:

  • Accelerate the deployment of 5G to the majority of the country, enabling UK consumers and businesses to take early advantage of the benefits.
  • Support the uptake of digital health tools to the general public by a) utilising government data and communication channels to promote the benefits of digital health tools and b) reviewing how the personal budgets programme could better support the uptake of personal digital technology.
  • Foster knowledge exchange between Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport ...(DCMS) and the Department of Health and Social Care to embed knowledge, experience and expertise on the potential of 5G into the newly formed NHSX.
  • Ensure that the new NHS England app will allow the public to access data beyond that which is held in primary care – and promote the ability to do so.
  • Provide health and social care professionals in the community with 5G technology, particularly in rural areas with limited health and social care provision, where consumer options for getting online are also limited.
  • Ensure the NHS can capitalise on developments in AI, Genomics, 5G, and Blockchain technology.

The Liverpool 5G testbed is made up of a consortium of organisations which look at how 5G technology can reduce the digital divide. In addition to this the testbed measured the impact on patient monitoring and support, whilst simultaneously looking at the management of loneliness in older adults.

Sophie Weston, Programme Manager for Communications Infrastructure, techUK, said: “We should be looking forward to the opportunities that 5G can bring and the way that this technology can help with our health, within the hospital and at home.”

Rosemary Kay, Project Director, of Liverpool 5G Testbed, said: “The innovative and transformative qualities of 5G can drive much-needed changes to health and social care. 39 per cent of us will be over 65 by 2036, so more people are living with age-related conditions like heart disease and there’s less money to treat them. In addition, by 2022 analogue services will disappear so we need to find reliable, affordable solutions to current telehealth services, by that date, if we’re to continue caring for everyone.”


Digital divide

While data and processing costs will continue to fall, all services come with a cost. A digital divide exists today, with not all people being able to afford the internet or have access to 4G networks. Will this get worse or better in the future?

We believe the digital divide will reduce and disappear over time but will exist for a significant time. When you ask older people what has the most impact in their life, technology is increasingly becoming the answer? FaceTime and Alexa enable older people to interact with. The fact that you can interact with this technology with your voice, breaking down boundaries. It is very difficult to forget how to use your Alexa.


In conclusion

The transformational nature of smart technology, cloud-native technology and 5G will create significant savings when compared with traditional models of care. It will be up to future thinking local authorities to innovate and deliver new models of care. Transformation supported by technology is part of the answer and has the ability to change operating models for the better.

Technology should supplement crucial face to face care, ensuring each individual feel connected to the community, happy and cared for.  Modern software and open APIs will be essential in the new connected world. In the brave new world exciting opportunities await and by 2024, social care models are likely to have significantly changed supported by modern technology. New models of care will enable better conversations between people and with greater connections between ‘things’.

It's an exciting time to reimagine social care and re-think how to use modern technology to improve the lives of your citizens - which is what social care is truly about!