The future of healthcare technology— faster access and better information through 5G

Author: Megan Williams

5G and edge computing are helping to bring new healthcare technologies to hospitals and to the people who need it most.

Edge computing architecture moves computing closer to where data is generated and consumed by edge devices—a device category populated by many familiar Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) players, such as sensor-based patient-monitoring tools, doctors' notebooks, nurses' smartphones and other healthcare technology.

Edge computing offers several benefits—including the fueling of multi-cloud computing strategies and the ability to reduce latency in data processing without sacrificing quality.

Healthcare trends supported by AI and edge computing

Healthcare is a high-stakes industry—it is quite often literally life-or-death—and it has been a fertile ground for many technological advances, such as real-time computing, the IoMT, robotics and advanced analytics. Edge computing can accelerate their growth and expand their applications in patient safety, chronic disease management, drug supply chain safety and other areas. And because edge computing shifts a significant part of the processing load closer to the source of data, providers and IT leaders can consider even more advanced uses of the enormous amount of data generated in the industry.

On the patient safety and monitoring front, cameras and sensors can help inform risk management strategies by tracking compliance with hospital sanitation policies and generating data that is easy to process and analyze. The sensors and devices that facilitate continuous patient monitoring could alert providers of clinically meaningful changes and opportunities for early interventions. Those same sensors could be used to reduce risks in the drug supply chain, alerting managers to issues such as temperature changes in vaccines during transport.

Another promising frontier is where AI and edge computing intersect. Edge AI shifts AI-enabled decision-making closer to where data lives, enabling devices to process data faster than centralized IoT/IoMT models can, facilitating a more automated, near real time, and secure user experience and expanding what is possible for patients and healthcare providers.

With 5G, edge computing can allow for great improvement in potential accessibility for smaller, more remote healthcare facilities. The capital expenditure required to power computing in operating or exam rooms can instead be turned into an accessible decentralized service.

Benefits of edge computing architecture

The healthcare industry generates a massive amount of data, but its ability to make good use of that data has long been hampered by network architectures that cannot handle it efficiently, securely or cost-effectively. Imagine, for example, the challenge of transmitting a full-body MRI scan or genomic data across the country and back for analysis.

By minimizing the transmission time, edge computing can substantially reduce end-to-end latency and the challenges of limited bandwidth and data transmission speeds across long distances while also reducing threats to privacy and data security. Among the benefits this generates:

  • Improved accessibility in remote areas
  • Reduced workloads through streamlined tasks
  • Improved mobility

The end results should be an enhanced patient experience and superior productivity in organizations that are empowered to concentrate resources and make their healthcare IT systems more efficient.

Edge computing can also deliver automated security policies to individual locations, supporting unified HIPAA compliance across multi-site organizations and simplifying GDPR and other privacy law compliance.

Hurdles to the healthcare edge

Potential alone does not make edge technology a guaranteed win. Organizations looking to implement it will need to address crucial challenges.

Edge computing is possible with 4G, but many of the most promising healthcare applications will need a 5G network. 4G LTE network standards already struggle with connection density in healthcare facilities, and as the number of IoMT devices increases, 5G's potential to handle 10 to 100 times as many devices will only become more valuable. A 5G network also gives smaller and more rural facilities the ability to invest in essential edge computing healthcare technology that allows them to provide a more advanced level of care that was previously prohibitively expensive to support. To access this benefit, though, hospitals and health systems will need to work with reliable providers who can provide the expertise while delivering the coverage and promise of 5G.

And though 5G offers some security benefits, like any new technology, it also presents new risks. 5G networks present an increase in hardware traffic points of contact, complicating security checks and monitoring. Encryption deficiencies early in the connection process can also increase the likelihood of device-specific IoT attacks.

The edge computing security opportunity

Interestingly, edge computing could make computing safer. Reducing the distance that data has to travel reduces opportunities for bad actors to intercept it, and more data on the edges of a network could result in fewer attacks on its central servers. But the challenge is to incorporate security into how healthcare devices are designed—no minor feat considering the myriad device manufacturers and stringent security standards at play in the healthcare space.

The future of edge computing

Edge computing alongside the deployment of 5G holds significant promise for the decentralization of healthcare and supporting hospitals-without-walls initiatives. Its deployment could potentially extend the availability of cancer screening centers and pop-up clinics while extending increased and actionable patient monitoring technologies, such as cardiac pacemakers, defibrillators and insulin pumps, in remote areas.

As healthcare technology evolves, edge computing can put the power of data exactly where it needs to be—at the point of care to inform real-time clinical decisions.

Learn more about how Verizon 5G Edge can support the future of healthcare technology.

The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.