Electronic Health Records Need to Get Ready for 5G

The 5th generation wireless (5G) service being deployed today promises to deliver super-fast low latency broadband to phones or homes. Despite some highly promising applications, health care is underrepresented in its use of broadband for competitive and policy reasons but not for technical reasons.

The usual pathway for your use of 5G would be via 5G wireless broadband from your home Wi-Fi network to a local 5G antenna sometimes mounted on the side of a building or a pole. From there, your transmissions would usually travel over fiber optics to an internet service provider and then to the internet backbone.

5G speeds can hit 4 gigabits per second , which is nearly 100 times faster than 4G. As with 4G, your 5G network is shared with others, so the speed you experience will change with the volume of data others are transmitting over the local 5G network and over internet routes you are using.

5G deployment is already underway in some urban and suburban areas. For example, T-Mobile will offer 5G networks in 30 cities, which its customers can access in 2019. 5G will be 10 times more cost efficient than 4G, making it attractive for businesses to quickly adopt as an upgrade for applications now using 4G.

Residential customers already rely on wireless broadband for many applications. Movies and interactive video games run on broadband, as do electronic shopping, work-at-home applications, and college education where both live and video courseware are popular (e.g. at Udacity, Khan, and Coursera). 5G will make those applications even more attractive. 4K movies, videos and software suites will download much faster. The boost in speed will be noticeable to consumers using software as a service (e.g. Office 365).

Unfortunately, health care is not as ready as it should be. Except for integrated health systems, a patient’s medical records are scattered across clinics, doctors’ offices and hospitals. Those records include the simple text of lab tests, routine visit notes and imaging studies (sonograms, X-rays, CT scans and MRIs). Gathering the records needed for a physician to manage a case can be time consuming and costly.

The formats for the various medical records are inherently incompatible (e.g. physician squiggles on paper versus imaging studies),  and even if the records are already converted to electronic health record (EHR) systems, the various EHR systems are largely incompatible. The dominant EHR vendor, EPIC, is unwilling to jettison its formats and EPIC’s competitors are unwilling to convert to EPIC’s format. This competitive standoff has nothing to do with broadband or 5G. 5G could deliver all records regardless of format at lightning speed and low cost, but it would be pointless until physicians, hospitals, and the EHR systems settle on a common records format.

“Telemedicine” has been discussed for decades, and in some instances, it is used to accommodate patients located at a distance from their physicians. This has been a boon to some rural patients because it avoids lengthy travel and telemedicine can deliver access to specialist physicians unavailable in the patient’s area.

As broadband speeds increased in the last decade, the picture and sound quality improvements increased confidence that broadband artifacts would not compromise the medical exam or waste doctor-patient time. Telemedicine “adoption has been slow because of regulatory concerns along with a lack of consumer awareness and the challenges that many physicians have pulling in all the necessary patient records.

Teledoc offers a broad selection of medical specialties through “virtual physician visits” to U.S. and European clients, such as ExxonMobil. Doctor on Demand offers health care service over smartphones, PCs and tablets to retail patients in the U.S.  American Well helps hospitals and physician groups integrate virtual consultations into their scope of practice.

Nothing useful and efficient can exist without a clutch of regulations. Telemedicine has been shackled by state licensure issues since the early days. State licensure boards do not want out-of-state physicians poaching in their state, although the explanation offered is usually couched in terms of excluding “incompetent” doctors from every other state.

As soon as EHR systems are allowed to work compatibly, and state medical licensure boards get over their xenophobia, 5G will light up the medical landscape, through super-fast collecting of patient records and widespread virtual physician visits for consumers at their home or workplace.

That often mentioned “second opinion” will be easier and cheaper for all concerned. There will be a lot less sitting in waiting rooms, and less appointment rescheduling while physicians await a courier delivering records. 5G has more to offer to health care and patients than they suspect.

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