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5G and Health

According to a recent article by the Global Network on Extremism and Technology, the belief that 5G has some causal link with COVID-19 is surprisingly widespread.[1] It tends to cluster with other paranoid and delusional beliefs about a global conspiracy – and in a way this is unsurprising. Organisations that promote conspiracy theories tend towards political extremism and in times of crisis more people are susceptible to panic and illogic. Nevertheless the burning down of 20 phone masts (to date) prompts us to examine the actual effects that 5G may have on health, and show that, so far from posing an imminent risk, 5G will enable IoT technologies to improve health outcomes for many.

We are seeing more and more uses of 5G in medicine, in healthcare, and in medical settings like care homes where improvements in speed, bandwidth and device connectivity all mean improvements in patient care. Again, data, and the use of data analysis, is helping to improve wellness, often directly through more accurate diagnoses. As Robin Braun writes in HealthTec:

5G promises to provide that infrastructure and push smart devices and decisions from the core to the edge, creating secure, smarter data streams and enabling greater personalisation.[2]

Often elderly or vulnerable relatives are keen to live at home and receive home care for as long as possible, and sensor technology is already commonplace among healthcare workers to enable more independent living; for example, bracelets that can register a fall and summon assistance, or room occupancy monitors that can locate those who need help. There are even CCTV cameras that can monitor heart rate, breathing, and even blood pressure from across a room: Brainworks offers some of the same features through the use of smartphone cameras, speeding up the measurement of vital signs and reducing the burden on medical staff.

As many countries around the world meet the challenge of an ageing population where, in practical terms, there will soon not be enough young people to look after all the old people, these technology solutions become more and more important. Camera software is not only quicker than other means of measuring vital signs, it can be done remotely, so that patients who are unable to visit a doctor can be seen from home. It mitigates the need for home visits, saving more time. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems all the more significant that these non-invasive measures also reduce the risk of exposure and infection.

Administrative and operational efficiency alone will pose a problem as the demographic pyramid becomes top-heavy. Remote diagnostics will assist in this to some extent. Patients who require the expertise of a specific physician can contact them more easily over video call, and as we know, timely referrals are often crucial to later treatment. More regular check-ins can also be conducted to ensure that complications have not arisen, or that secondary infections have not set in. In both cases, more flexible consultations can lead to earlier diagnosis, faster treatment, and more carefully monitored recovery.

In this aspect of life, if no other, privacy concerns hardly register. But if patients are more eager to hand over their data, healthcare professionals must be equipped to safeguard that data from potential hacks and malware. This has been a concern since before the WannaCry attack that targeted NHS servers in 2017, and it remains a concern for designers of IoT infrastructure. It will be more important than before to ensure transparency about data gathering and data use, especially as devices more and more monitor and analyse data in real time. A crucial element to 5G in healthcare will be the move away from reactive and towards preventative healthcare, but as devices gather and process data, the legal concept of informed consent will be tested.

It should be no surprise that 5G conspiracy theorists focus so often on hospitals. After all, hospitals are becoming centers of digital infrastructure. But the real effect of 5G will not be to deplete the body of oxygen, it will be to increase connectivity, increase the speed of data transmission, and hopefully increase the speed and accuracy of diagnoses. In short, it will enable new technology uses to keep more people alive for longer.

 

[1] https://gnet-research.org/2020/04/21/5g-and-the-far-right-how-extremists-capitalise-on-coronavirus-conspiracies/

[2] Robin Braun, “How is 5G Technology Changing Healthcare?”, HealthTec, 3 April 2019

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