Just over a hundred years ago, the world was a very different place. Especially in the provision of healthcare. If available at all (rarely to the poor), healthcare was usually provided by individual local doctors working for themselves. Occasionally, they were supported by funding from charities or religious institutions. General healthcare provision was therefore atomised, suffered from information vacuums and lacked any economies of scale.
The 1918 flu pandemic triggered a big change in thinking in many countries. Understanding better the wider ramifications of an unchecked virus rampaging through national populations, the role for coordinated central government involvement became clearer. By the 1920s many governments embraced the concept of socialised medicine—healthcare for all, delivered (mostly) free at the point of delivery. Joined-up national healthcare systems were born, information and resources rapidly shared across clinics and hospitals. Large economies of scale were captured.
A hundred years later, the COVID-19 pandemic may be another trigger for a revolution in healthcare.
Just What the Doctor Ordered
Although digital technologies have transformed the way many of us listen to music, watch movies, shop, bank and travel, up to 2020 its impact on the healthcare industry had been remarkably underwhelming. Even most medical records were paper based. Out of necessity however, many digitalised healthcare services came to the fore in 2020. New technologies like 5G, AI, and the internet of things (IoT) herald enhanced medical service provision in the decades to come.
In Wuhan for example, at the epicentre of the Coronavirus outbreak in early 2020, Huawei worked with partners at the Huoshenshan Hospital to provide 5G connectivity to the site. 5G Cloud and AI-assisted diagnosis proved to be six times faster than legacy manual operations for checking CT scans. This provided a crucial productivity boost to medical personnel in checking for COVID-19 in patients.
Given the need for social distancing, WeDoctor (again in China) offered free introductory medical consultations over video connection to potential patients early last year. It subsequently increased its subscriber base 36-fold between January and April 2020.
5G-enabled “smart wards” in hospitals provide an integrated solution for auxiliary diagnosis, intelligent nursing, and ward management based on the connection between the 5G health private network and the internal network of the hospital. Nurses can use the 5G smart ward interaction platform to collect, backhaul, and monitor patient signs and infusion monitoring data in real time. Nurses can log in to the intelligent medicine cabinet to take and use temporary medications in the ward, which ensures the safety of patients’ medications. Based on the pharmaceutical consumables IoT management platform, the storage, use, and dispensing of pharmaceutical consumables can be monitored remotely and dynamically, facilitating refined management in hospitals. This is already proving to enhance labour efficiency, improve nurses’ work-time experience, and improve patient care.
In a similar vein, digitalised medical carts could also greatly improve the work efficiency of medical staff and the quality of diagnosis and treatment, again improving the patients’ convalescing experience.
Demonstration of a medical cart at the Huawei booth at Mobile World Congress 2019
With the “zero dead corner” coverage advantages of 5G, 5G medical carts extend medical service tentacles to wards. This fundamentally solves the problem of poor Wi-Fi signal quality at wards and beds. It promotes the realization of bedside treatment, nursing, consultation and rescue guidance and the difficulty of caring for patients. Compared with 5G and Wi-Fi networks, the mobile ward round/nursing application system on the 5G medical cart has obvious differences in the use effect in the ward. Wi-Fi may freeze, CT image loading takes more than 1 to 2 minutes, and video sequence browsing requires a delay. The average download rate of 5G is 600 Mbit/s, which is smooth in and out of the room. More than 500 CT image sequences can be loaded within 10 to 20 seconds without any lag.
Intensive care unit 5G remote consultation supports one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many remote consultation at any time through the remote consultation centre, department consultation terminal, or mobile terminal.
Experts can access 5G-enabled mobile phones, 5G tablets, and consultation carts anytime and anywhere to perform mobile consultation, ICU/special patient bedside consultation, medical association remote consultation, and group hospital inter-hospital consultation, breaking time and place restrictions and maximizing patient care.
Ambulances enabled with 5G connectivity can provide vital per-hospital admission information in emergency situations. Patients can be registered and archived as soon as they get on board. Information such as patient vital signs, electrocardiograms, HD videos and vehicle locations from ambulances is transmitted seamlessly to a hospital’s emergency command centre. All previously impossible over 4G.
Emergency doctors can then understand and diagnose the condition of patients in a timely manner, prepare for hospital first aid in advance, connect pre-hospital data to the pre-hospital triage system, prepare green channels for hospital first aid in advance and reserve beds to reduce the time required for hospital inspection and handover. These improvements could literally be of a matter of life-and-death importance. Other benefits include the ability to expand medical services from hospital to out-of-hospital, and extend hierarchical diagnosis and treatment from hospital to social health and then to families.
Preventive healthcare also holds great promise in the years ahead, with the expanded use and capability of wearable digital devices. Huawei watches and health bands already produce data on heart rates, exercise routines, blood oxygen saturation, and quality of sleep. Vast, anonymised health data pools can be produced over time to be analysed by artificial intelligence to spot potential problems and alert individuals to abnormalities. 5G promises to greatly expand the capabilities of data transfer in real-time from and to users and vastly improved metrics and leading indicators could be produced for society to better improve individual’s health.
After the 1918 flu pandemic, the cornerstone of public health became epidemiology—the study of patterns, causes and effects in disease. Epidemiology requires data, and the gathering of health data became more systematic. The rapid utilisation of digital technologies after the 2019 Coronavirus pandemic could arguably be creating a new revolution in our ability to share and use data and radically improve public healthcare provision.
Disclaimer: Any views and/or opinions expressed in this post by individual authors or contributors are their personal views and/or opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of Huawei Technologies.