Why you should care

As the aging West faces a growing demand for already stretched emergency services, 5G is emerging as a potential savior. Literally. 

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Imagine you work in a lab. You get up in the morning, go to work and drop a vial of acid that quickly spreads out into a chemical burn over your arm. The emergency services are called and first responders show up, wearing augmented reality (AR) glasses that directly connect them to burn experts hundreds of miles away who advise them every step of the way to the hospital. As the first responders treat your arm, the last thing you want is for the connection with the burn experts to stutter or seize up. Enter 5G, the lifesaver.

From faster data speeds than ever before to the prospect of autonomous vehicles, this coming new generation of mobile internet promises to turn several science-fiction dreams into reality. But 5G is also quietly emerging as a catalyst that could revolutionize the most basic of human needs: life-saving emergency medical care. A growing number of pilot projects are now testing the potential of 5G to help drones drop off insulin or defibrillators, connect emergency responders with faraway medical experts and help ambulances beam up complex medical data to doctors in real time.

In Sweden, researcher Andreas Claesson at the Karolinska Institutet medical university is working on tests using 5G-enabled drones to deliver defibrillators. Drones could just as well be used to drop off shots of insulin to someone experiencing a diabetic attack, significantly lowering response time. In Groningen, a rural province of the Netherlands, emergency services are conducting pilot tests using 5G to directly connect first responders wearing AR glasses to medical experts. And Filip Haegdorens, an emergency nurse and researcher in emergency medicine at the University of Antwerp, believes 5G could help Belgium decide where to deploy specialized emergency units with doctors most urgently.

We want to bring the hospital into the street.

Bram Oosting, Groningen emergency services

“There are plenty of use-cases for 5G in emergencies,” says Haegdorens, “particularly to assess and treat people before they arrive at the emergency room.”

For sure, ambulances that can stream across a patient’s medical data live to the hospital, drones and AR kits aren’t strictly tied to 5G; in theory, 4G speeds could also support these technologies to an extent. But when it’s a matter of life and death, speed and reliability of connectivity are critical, making 5G a much-awaited tool in the arsenal of emergency-care professionals.

In Sweden, for instance, survival rates for cardiac arrests outside of hospitals are poor, the 30-day survival rate being only 11 percent in 2016. Many fatal cases are in remote areas that take emergency responders long to reach. That’s where drones come in.

“Each minute without treatment with CPR and a defibrillator decreases survival rates by approximately 10 percent, so drones may play a significant role in increasing survival rates,” says Claesson. And 5G can significantly expand the amount of drones that can be employed.

Groningen’s experiments with first responders using AR glasses to connect directly with medical experts are also pointing to the drastic difference 5G can make. “During exercises, these glasses were a real aid to emergency responders,” says Bram Oosting, a policy adviser focused on innovation with the Groningen emergency services. “But a bottleneck is current, 4G mobile internet speeds. When you’re treating burn victims you don’t want the video to be four seconds ahead of the sound you’re sending, which we had occur during exercises using 4G.”

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Medical professionals in Groningen working on a pilot test for the use of 5G technology in emergency services.

Source Ambulancezorg Groningen, the emergency services of Groningen

Much of the advantages 5G offers for emergency care also have to do with triage: seeing who needs to be treated where.

“We always give people the best care possible, but often people get too much care,” says Oosting. Take, for example, a burn victim who might get transferred to a special burns center, based on an initial, on-the-spot analysis. But doctors there find the patient could have been treated just as well in a general hospital. Treatment at the burns center is costly, and could instead have been directed to needier patients.

That kind of assistance in evaluating medical needs is something Belgium could do with too, suggests Haegdorens, citing the country’s specialized emergency units that are ideally meant to be deployed only in very serious crises, like cardiac arrests. “Deciding when to send these costly units is very important,” he says. “So maybe with 5G we could move to a different system, where we could teleconference between ambulance crews and hospital staff or even share vital signs and an electrocardiogram directly from the field.”

And this needn’t stay limited to heart scans. In Groningen, researchers are next contemplating trying to measure skin temperature with their AR glasses. That would let hospital doctors make remote measurements. As populations age across most of the industrialized world, 5G can help stretched — and, in some cases, resource-constrained — emergency services meet growing demands for sudden medical care, say experts. 5G could also make some elements of emergency services more cost-effective.

It’ll take time before these plans travel from pilot experiments to publicly available services. Full-scale 5G rollout is projected for around 2020, and emergency medicine applications will become available only then. For researchers like the ones in Groningen, the time till then represents a window for fine-tuning ways in which 5G can transform the emergency responders of the future.

“In the end we’re trying to bring health care to the people as soon as possible,” says Oosting. “We want to bring the hospital into the street.”

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