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  • Writer's pictureMike Entner

The Case for Private 5G in Healthcare

By Michael Entner-Gómez | Chief Technology and Transformation Officer | Entner Consulting Group, LLC.

The Critical Factors Surrounding Its Adoption and Implementation

5G is often criticized as a technology in search of a use case or a ‘killer app.’ As someone with extensive experience in the telecom industry, having worked with companies like Verizon, Sprint, and Wind River, I can assert that 5G has definitely proven to be a financial burden for Communication Service Providers (CSPs) who have faced challenges in monetizing this next-generation wireless communication standard. In reality, aside from Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) and some specialized applications requiring ultra-low latency and traffic prioritization— such as in utilities, broadcasting, and autonomous vehicles — the industry has struggled to find widespread lucrative applications for 5G. Consequently, the focus has shifted from monetization towards cost reduction, prompting efforts in the vRAN and Open RAN spaces. This shift aims at finding faster and more cost-effective ways to deliver the 5G services already promised to customers.

Shifting our focus towards private 5G, as opposed to the macro public 5G services offered by major carriers like AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile, necessitates a deep dive into the distinct qualities of 5G that can specifically benefit the healthcare sector. The deployment of this technology must be driven by clear, value-added reasons; without tangible benefits over existing communication capabilities, such an initiative would be futile. Thus, it’s essential to meticulously assess how the inherent capabilities of 5G align with the unique needs and challenges of healthcare.

Private 5G networks promise to offer secure, reliable, and high-speed connectivity tailored to the specific requirements of healthcare facilities. This includes supporting the burgeoning array of IoT devices in medical environments, from patient monitoring systems to diagnostic equipment, ensuring that critical data is transmitted quickly and securely. Additionally, the ultra-low latency and high bandwidth of private 5G are crucial for applications that demand real-time data analysis and decision-making, such as remote surgeries and emergency services. By mapping these capabilities against healthcare’s unique requirements, we can identify and leverage the specific areas where 5G technology can provide the most significant improvements in care quality, operational efficiency, and patient outcomes.

Unique Communications Requirements

The healthcare sector has unique communication requirements that are critical to its operational success and the delivery of high-quality care. These requirements include the need for ultra-reliable, secure communication channels capable of handling large volumes of sensitive patient data. Additionally, healthcare settings demand real-time data transmission to support time-sensitive medical decisions and procedures. The integration of a myriad of medical devices and systems, from electronic health records to telemetry and remote monitoring tools, further complicates these communication needs. This complexity necessitates a network infrastructure that can support a high degree of connectivity, flexibility, and scalability.

Furthermore, the burgeoning adoption of telemedicine, powered by video consultations and remote diagnostics, underscores the need for networks that can ensure consistent, high-quality connections regardless of location. The transition towards more personalized patient care models, relying on continuous monitoring and data analysis, also requires the seamless and uninterrupted flow of data. Thus, the communication infrastructure in healthcare must not only safeguard patient privacy and comply with stringent regulatory standards but also adjust to the changing terrain of medical technology and patient care practices. This is where private 5G networks, with their capability to meet these rigorous demands, present a compelling solution for modern healthcare communication challenges.

While it’s reasonable to question the role of private 5G in light of existing Wi-Fi capabilities, there are distinct advantages that 5G offers over Wi-Fi, particularly in a healthcare setting. Wi-Fi, though ubiquitous and relatively easy to deploy, faces limitations in terms of coverage, reliability, and security that can be critical in healthcare environments. For instance, Wi-Fi networks can struggle with connectivity issues in densely built environments or across expansive healthcare campuses, leading to potential gaps in patient monitoring and data transmission. Additionally, Wi-Fi networks typically provide less robust security measures, a significant concern when dealing with sensitive patient information.

Lastly, the capacity and bandwidth offered by Wi-Fi may not sufficiently support the simultaneous operation of numerous IoT devices and high-definition video needed for telemedicine and remote diagnostics. Wi-Fi’s higher latency compared to 5G can also hinder applications requiring real-time data processing, such as remote surgical assistance or critical patient care technologies. In contrast, private 5G networks can deliver extensive coverage, enhanced security protocols, higher data throughput, and lower latency. These attributes make 5G better suited to address the comprehensive and evolving demands of healthcare communication infrastructure, ensuring no compromise on patient care quality and operational efficiency.

Private 5G Primer

The journey towards 5G technology began as an evolution from its predecessors, aiming to address the ever-growing demand for faster data speeds, more reliable connections, and the capability to connect a vast number of devices simultaneously. Since the inception of 1G in the 1980s, each subsequent generation of wireless technology has brought significant advancements. 5G, the fifth generation, marks a considerable leap forward, introducing capabilities far beyond those of 4G LTE. It promises ultra-high speeds, extremely low latency, and unprecedented capacity, setting the stage for a connected world ready to support the next wave of technological innovation.

Private 5G networks represent a specialized application of 5G technology, offering a dedicated infrastructure tailored specifically to the needs of individual organizations or locales, such as hospitals, manufacturing plants, or educational campuses. Unlike public 5G networks managed by telecom companies and shared by all users within a service area, private 5G networks provide organizations with exclusive control over their network’s coverage, capacity, security, and reliability. This exclusivity enables a highly customizable network environment optimized to support a broad spectrum of applications and use cases, especially those requiring high bandwidth, low latency, and heightened security measures.

A key feature of 5G technology is its support for the massive connectivity demands of IoT. In healthcare, this translates to improved operational efficiency, enhanced patient care, and the facilitation of cutting-edge medical technologies. Private 5G networks utilize the same core technology as public 5G but are deployed on a smaller, more controlled scale. They can operate in both licensed and unlicensed spectrum bands, offering flexibility in deployment and cost.

Security is a paramount feature of private 5G networks, providing advanced encryption, network slicing for traffic segregation, and the ability to implement stringent access controls. This ensures a secure communication environment, safeguarding sensitive data and critical healthcare systems while ensuring compliance with strict health data protection regulations. In a subsequent section, we will discuss 5G security advantages in more depth.

The scalability of private 5G networks allows them to evolve alongside the changing needs of healthcare facilities. An essential component of this adaptability is eSIM technology, which facilitates the seamless transition of devices between macro and private networks. This technology enables the application of very specific communications rule sets to different usage scenarios, enhancing the network’s flexibility and efficiency. As a result, healthcare facilities can ensure that devices switch effortlessly between network types, optimizing connectivity based on location, network load, and the specific requirements of the task at hand. From supporting basic administrative functions to enabling sophisticated AI-driven diagnostics and telemedicine services, private 5G’s capacity for growth and its ability to provide consistent, high-speed connectivity across extensive healthcare facilities position it as a transformative force in the sector. This innovative approach to network management is poised to revolutionize how care is delivered and managed, ensuring that healthcare providers can offer the highest standards of patient care with unprecedented efficiency and reliability.

Breaking Down the Use Cases

As we dig deeper into the practical applications of private 5G in healthcare, it becomes evident that this technology is not merely an enhancement but a critical necessity for contemporary medical practices. Below, we explore ten specific use cases where private 5G can profoundly influence healthcare delivery, operational efficiency, and patient outcomes. It’s important to note that this list is not exhaustive but rather highlights a selection of the more prominent scenarios.

  1. Remote Patient Monitoring — private 5G enables real-time data collection and analysis from wearable devices, allowing healthcare providers to continuously monitor patient health outside the traditional hospital setting. This facilitates early detection of potential health issues and timely interventions.

  2. Telemedicine — with high-speed, reliable connections, private 5G supports seamless video consultations and remote diagnostics, overcoming geographical barriers to healthcare access and reducing the need for in-person visits.

  3. Emergency Response — ultra-low latency and reliable connectivity are critical in emergency medical services. Private 5G ensures that ambulance teams have instant access to patient records, can perform real-time remote diagnostics, and prepare hospital staff for immediate treatment upon arrival.

  4. Surgical Robotics — the ultra-low latency of private 5G networks facilitates the remote operation of surgical robots, allowing specialists to perform surgeries from afar with precision and reducing the risks associated with delay.

  5. AI-Driven Diagnostics — private 5G networks provide the bandwidth and speed necessary for AI algorithms to analyze vast amounts of medical data quickly, supporting faster and more accurate diagnoses.

  6. Virtual Reality (VR) in Medical Training — VR applications require high bandwidth and low latency to provide immersive, realistic experiences. Private 5G enables medical professionals to train in virtual environments, simulating surgeries and procedures without risk to patients.

  7. Smart Hospitals — from asset tracking to smart patient beds, private 5G networks support IoT devices across hospitals, improving operational efficiency, patient care, and resource management.

  8. Patient Data Management — the enhanced security features of private 5G networks ensure the safe transmission and storage of sensitive patient data, complying with healthcare regulations and protecting against data breaches.

  9. Augmented Reality (AR) for Surgery Assistance — AR can overlay critical information, such as patient vitals or imaging data, directly into a surgeon’s field of view. Private 5G’s reliability supports these applications in real-time, aiding complex surgeries.

  10. Pharmacy Inventory Management — by connecting smart shelves and inventory systems, private 5G helps manage pharmaceutical supplies efficiently, ensuring medication availability and reducing waste.

These use cases illustrate the diverse and transformative potential of private 5G in healthcare, from enhancing patient care to revolutionizing medical training and operations. As this technology continues to evolve, its role in shaping the future of healthcare becomes increasingly indispensable.

Device Challenges

While there are many devices equipped with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and support for older cellular generations (2G, 3G, 4G LTE), the ecosystem for 5G-enabled devices is currently less populated. The technology and chipsets necessary for 5G are in existence and are gradually being incorporated into the next generation of devices. From a consumer’s perspective, particularly regarding handsets, tablets, and laptops, 5G has made significant inroads and is well established. However, the broader adoption across all device types is underway, indicating a period of transition as more 5G-capable devices enter the market.

One of the primary challenges facing 5G deployment, including device availability, stems from technical hurdles such as the need for multi-band support across both upper and lower frequency bands. This requirement poses design challenges, particularly for front-end filters, and raises concerns over device heating due to the power consumption necessary for operating in high frequency bands. These factors collectively impact the performance, especially in achieving higher data rates and bandwidths. Moreover, the positioning of mMIMO antennas in devices directly influences beamforming gains or losses, and consequently, the device’s coverage and mobility performance, making 5G deployments highly complex and dependent on extensive device-based testing across numerous scenarios.

The current scarcity of 5G devices is partly due to these technical and design challenges, highlighting a crucial period of adjustment as the industry works toward integrating 5G capabilities into a wider range of devices. This situation underscores the importance of ongoing development and optimization efforts to ensure that 5G technology can fully realize its potential across various sectors, including healthcare.

The information suggests that as 5G technology continues to evolve, we can anticipate a gradual increase in the availability of 5G-enabled devices, further enhancing the connectivity options for users and expanding the potential applications of 5G technology across different fields

Can 5G, Wi-Fi, and Other Technologies Coexist?

Without a doubt, 5G, Wi-Fi, and other communication technologies not only can coexist but must do so to facilitate the transition of legacy devices to multi-standard technologies. Take your cellphone as an example; it seamlessly alternates between various communication protocols, selecting the ‘best’ transport option for any given application. This begs the question: Will Wi-Fi technology become obsolete overnight? Absolutely not. Rather, we should capitalize on the strengths of Wi-Fi and other communication protocols for specific use cases. Public Wi-Fi, for instance, remains indispensable and continues to be a practical solution from both administrative and financial standpoints, especially in supporting patients and visitors within a facility.

As we progress toward more complex use cases, it becomes essential to bridge various communication standards to ensure a seamless, scalable, and secure experience — the 3S’s as I call them. This challenge demands intricate orchestration behind the scenes, a feat modern edge networking equipment is more than capable of handling. There lies a golden opportunity to innovate and introduce multi-protocol edge networking gear that can bring cloud-native applications closer to where the data originates, thereby minimizing the distance data needs to travel across the network.

Envision a mobile clinic equipped with a hotspot as a practical example. Here, public 5G could offer secure, end-to-end backhaul connections to medical facilities while simultaneously providing private 5G and Wi-Fi access to end-users and visitors, respectively. All these connections would be securely managed by SASE (Secure Access Service Edge), embodying the 3S’s principles. This setup not only enhances the connectivity framework for healthcare services but also paves the way for a more integrated and efficient digital healthcare infrastructure.

Addressing Private 5G Deployment Challenges

Deploying private 5G networks successfully demands a strategic and collaborative approach, especially given the multifaceted challenges that arise in the technical, operational, and regulatory/financial domains, as outlined below:

  • Technical Challenges — the foremost hurdle encompasses a spectrum of technical considerations crucial for the deployment of private 5G networks. These include selecting the optimal spectrum, ensuring compatibility with current technologies, achieving desired network coverage, and accommodating the specific application needs. Additionally, integrating legacy systems and managing the complexities inherent to 5G — such as network slicing, edge computing, and leveraging mmWave frequencies — pose significant challenges. Addressing these requires not just a mastery of the latest communication technologies but also an in-depth understanding of the specific requirements of sectors like healthcare.

  • Operational Challenges — the operational facet involves meticulous planning and execution of network deployment, establishing robust security protocols, managing network performance, and effectively resolving any arising issues. Staying updated with technological advancements to periodically upgrade the network infrastructure is also vital. In contexts like healthcare, operational efficiency is paramount since any delay or disruption can critically affect patient care and outcomes.

  • Regulatory and Financial Challenges — regulatory and financial considerations constitute the third major category of challenges. Navigating through the complex regulatory landscape for private 5G networks, which involves adhering to both local and international standards and regulations, can be daunting. Financial challenges encompass the substantial initial investment for network setup and the ongoing operational and maintenance costs. Organizations must judiciously evaluate these costs against the anticipated benefits of deploying a private 5G network to ensure a favorable return on investment, a critical assessment in sectors where budget constraints are common.

To navigate these challenges, a two-pronged strategy is indispensable:

  1. Collaborating with Experienced Companies — partnering with entities that have a proven track record in successfully deploying both public and private 5G networks is essential. These partners offer invaluable expertise and insights gained from navigating the complexities of 5G deployment, including spectrum allocation, technical integration, and regulatory compliance. Their contribution ensures a solid and reliable foundation for the private 5G network, tailored to meet the organization’s specific needs.

  2. Engaging with Specialized Systems Integrators — working with systems integrators that specialize in the design, deployment, and operation of private 5G networks is crucial. They can provide customized solutions that align with the organization’s goals, ensuring the network effectively supports the intended use cases. Additionally, they play a key role in integrating 5G technology with existing IT and communication infrastructures, minimizing potential operational disruptions. This collaboration also includes training and equipping in-house staff to manage and maintain the network, facilitating a smooth operational transition.

Adopting this comprehensive strategy enables organizations to address the significant challenges of private 5G deployment effectively. It not only simplifies the technical and operational implementation aspects but also tackles financial and regulatory issues, paving the way for a seamless transition to a state-of-the-art, scalable, and secure communication network. This approach is particularly crucial in sectors like healthcare, where the stakes for reliability, security, and efficiency are exceptionally high.

Learning from other industry deployments

Industrial applications of private 5G are at the forefront of demonstrating the significant transformative power this technology holds across various sectors. Notably, the collaboration between Kyndryl and Nokia at Dow’s Freeport, Texas plant stands as a prime example of private 5G’s potential in industrial settings. This partnership has been pivotal in co-innovating and deploying advanced LTE and 5G private wireless services along with Industry 4.0 solutions, marking a significant impact with over 100 active engagements in 24 countries, especially within the industrial manufacturing sector, including multinational petrochemical companies like Dow.

At Dow’s Freeport site, one of the largest integrated chemical manufacturing complexes in the Western Hemisphere, the initiative focused on modernizing plant maintenance, enhancing worker safety, and increasing operational efficiency through digitalization. Before this project, maintenance processes were largely manual, relying on extensive paperwork and necessitating physical presence in the field, which was not only time-consuming but also posed significant safety risks. The solution developed through this partnership involved setting up a private LTE network, facilitated by Kyndryl and Nokia, to provide secure, reliable mobile connectivity across the expansive site. This technological advancement supported the digitalization of process documents and facilitated real-time communication between operators and control rooms through devices and platforms like Microsoft Teams, significantly improving the efficiency and safety of maintenance operations.

A further notable achievement of this collaboration is the establishment of a partner innovation lab in Raleigh, North Carolina. This lab aims to integrate advanced wireless connectivity and edge computing with a multi-factor zero trust model, effectively converging IT (Information Technology) and OT (Operational Technology) for enterprises. Such initiatives reflect Kyndryl and Nokia’s dedication to helping customers digitally transform their workspaces and operations, showcasing a scalable model for Industry 4.0 transformation across different sectors.

This case study of the successful deployment at Dow serves as an invaluable resource for other industries considering the benefits of private 5G networks. It illustrates how strategic partnerships and leveraging cutting-edge technologies can address real-world operational challenges, enhance efficiency, and ensure safety in complex industrial environments. The lessons learned and insights gained from these industrial applications of private 5G, such as the Kyndryl and Nokia collaboration at Dow, offer a roadmap for sectors like healthcare, suggesting how they might similarly revolutionize their operations, improve patient care, and streamline hospital management processes through the adoption of private 5G technology.

Private 5G as a Cybersecurity Catalyst in Healthcare

The healthcare industry’s embrace of digital technologies brings the integration of 5G networks into sharp focus, marking a significant leap in patient care and cybersecurity. 5G’s advanced security capabilities provide a strong foundation for safeguarding sensitive patient data against the rise of cyber threats, integrating effortlessly with the Zero Trust framework to strengthen the digital environment of the healthcare sector.

Central to 5G’s security enhancements are its cutting-edge encryption methods and protocols, ensuring data integrity and confidentiality across the network. Such encryption is vital for healthcare, upholding the privacy and security of patient data against unauthorized access. Network slicing, another 5G hallmark, permits the creation of multiple virtual networks on the same physical infrastructure, enabling specific slices with augmented security for sensitive healthcare data. This aligns with Zero Trust’s microsegmentation, preventing attackers’ lateral movements within networks.

Additionally, 5G enhances identity management and access control, embodying the Zero Trust principle of ‘never trust, always verify’ by authenticating and continuously verifying every device and user. The integration of Security Edge Protection Proxy (SEPP) with Zero Trust architecture further strengthens this security, encrypting and rigorously scrutinizing data flows, thus minimizing potential attack surfaces.

In essence, 5G introduces a suite of security mechanisms that, combined with Zero Trust principles, provide a robust defense against cyber threats in healthcare. This fusion of technology establishes a new cybersecurity standard, ensuring the digital resilience of healthcare services against a changing spectrum of threats.

Closing Thoughts

In reflecting upon the transformative journey of 5G within the healthcare sector, it’s evident that this technology is not merely a leap forward in connectivity but a catalyst for revolutionary change across the entire healthcare ecosystem. The narrative that 5G is a technology in search of a use case has been effectively challenged by its tangible benefits and applications within healthcare, demonstrating that its value extends far beyond the initial investment and technical challenges faced by CSPs. The integration of private 5G networks into healthcare facilities underscores a critical shift towards more reliable, secure, and efficient delivery of care, enabled by high-speed, low-latency connectivity.

The discourse around 5G’s role in healthcare brings to light the essential need for a nuanced understanding of its potential, particularly in an era where digital health technologies are becoming increasingly central to patient care. By focusing on the unique capabilities of 5G, such as network slicing, enhanced security features, and support for a massive array of IoT devices, healthcare providers can unlock unprecedented levels of operational efficiency, care quality, and patient outcomes. Moreover, the alignment of 5G with advanced security frameworks like Zero Trust illustrates a proactive approach to addressing the cybersecurity challenges inherent in digital transformation, ensuring that patient data is protected against emerging threats.

As we consider the future of 5G in healthcare, it’s clear that the journey is just beginning. The ongoing development and optimization of 5G technology, alongside the growing availability of 5G-enabled devices, promise to further expand its applications and impact. The coexistence of 5G with other technologies like Wi-Fi, coupled with efforts to address deployment challenges through collaboration and innovation, pave the way for a more integrated, scalable, and secure healthcare communication infrastructure.

Ultimately, the evolution of 5G within healthcare reflects a broader trend towards the digitization and personalization of patient care. It stands as a testament to the power of technological innovation to address the most pressing challenges of our time, from improving healthcare accessibility to enhancing the quality and efficiency of care delivery. As we move forward, the continued exploration, adoption, and refinement of 5G technology in healthcare will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in shaping the future of healthcare delivery, making it more connected, secure, and patient-centric than ever before.

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