From The Editor | March 25, 2012

The Potential Impact Of 4G On Healthcare

Ken Congdon, Editor In Chief of Health IT Outcomes

By Ken Congdon, editor in chief, Health IT Outcomes

By now, most of you have probably seen television commercials from cellular carriers or smartphone manufacturers that tout the benefits of new 4G cellular broadband networks. Today, this fourth generation of cellular wireless standards can achieve download speeds upwards of 10 Mbps, with even higher speeds expected for the future. In the consumer world, this significant upgrade in wireless broadband means faster wireless web surfing/downloads and high-quality wireless videoconferencing. However, few have spoken about the potential impact 4G communication can have on the healthcare sector. Quite simply, 4G has the potential to transform the healthcare experience as we know it for patients, caregivers, and facilities alike.

Next-Generation Telehealth
First, 4G broadband capabilities are dovetailing nicely with the growing trend of telehealth/telemedicine in the United States. Telehealth is becoming a popular alternative to doctor's office or hospital visits in the treatment of the chronically ill and elderly. Telehealth solutions can include physician/patient videoconferencing as well as wireless patient monitors. With 4G, these data-intensive communications can now be conducted wirelessly, making the equipment easier to install and more intuitive and convenient for patients to use.

For example, two-way videoconferencing devices can be placed at the patient bedside for regular physician/patient interaction, complete with high-definition video transfer for accurate visual diagnosis. Wireless patient blood pressure, blood glucose level, weight, and bone density monitors may also be integrated into the solution. These devices provide treating physicians with regular insight into the patient's condition by regularly relaying this data wirelessly to the doctor's computer or mobile device.

Telehealth solutions promise to have a profound impact on patient care and can also help drive costs out of the healthcare system. For instance, enabling the chronically ill and elderly to receive care from home reduces the number of hospital admissions and office visits, which are riddled with expense. Furthermore, by receiving regular updates on a patient's vitals from telehealth devices, physicians can be immediately alerted to a potential medical problem that requires treatment. Without these tools, the patient might only visit the doctor once the symptoms have progressed to a dangerous level, which may require stronger treatment and lengthier hospital stays. Finally, research also shows that elderly cared for in their own homes live longer, healthier, and more productive lives. With 4G telehealth technology, the remote "high-touch" personal care these patients require is now not only possible, but fairly easy to establish.

4G telehealth solutions also help remove location barriers from the healthcare equation. With videoconferencing, a patient in a rural area with 4G coverage can receive a consultation from a world-renowned specialist in an urban location without ever leaving their neighborhood or home.

Information Sharing On-Demand
The main objective of ARRA is to motivate healthcare facilities to adopt EHRs and use them in a meaningful way. The idea is that once medical records are digital, they become more mobile and can be shared more easily with other hospitals and physicians. 4G will play a significant role in delivering this health information on demand — when and where patients or caregivers want and need it most.

EHRs are data-intensive applications that require significant bandwidth to access and manage. Historically, physicians may have had a difficult time interacting with these systems effectively via a cellular connection. 4G changes that. 4G now delivers the bandwidth necessary for electronic medical data to be transmitted cellularly at faster speeds than ever before. This capability not only makes the patient record more mobile, but it also significantly impacts the speed with which care is delivered in emergency medical situations in the field and abroad.

The M2M Connection
M2M (machine-to-machine) communication is a term common to the wireless industry, but currently isn't prevalent in the healthcare industry. The capacity of 4G cellular networks promises to usher the healthcare industry into the M2M age by interconnecting healthcare devices with devices in other industries to improve medical response times and the quality of care.

For example, imagine a car is involved in an accident. Sensors in the car can immediately register the impact and send out a call for help complete with the vehicle's location. Current telepresence systems such as OnStar already do this, but 4G will enable another level of action. For instance, the sensor in the vehicle can identify who the car is registered to and identify all the members of his or her family. The medical records of all of these individuals can then be automatically downloaded to the first emergency medical responders on the scene and the receiving hospital. As you can see, 4G broadband is a key component to ushering in the next evolution in mobile healthcare delivery. It continues to remove the boundaries between patient and provider, allowing for timelier and more convenient patient care.