In Spring, the UK Government invested £16m in AI solutions for healthcare. This followed previous announcements that made clear the sector would be central to policy. These included commitments to slashing NHS waiting times through the deployment of 300 new 'surgical hubs' and the development of diagnostic centres to tackle the backlog of operations; and it came after the delayed Autumn budget unveiled an additional £3.3bn in funding for healthcare.
While funding is critical, in a speech to the CBI Conference in November, the Prime Minister said, “Better care requires innovation,” and he was correct. Although the proposed Community Diagnostic Centres and elective surgical hubs will help the NHS deliver more tests, scans and surgeries; it is innovation powered by increased connectivity to 5G services that can help transform the sector.
With the recent cabinet reshuffle bringing about the removal of the ‘digital’ in DCMS, the telecom industry is hopeful that the newly formed Department for Science, Innovation and Technology will incorporate digital connectivity within the spine of its operations to encourage future growth in the UK, and within the healthcare sector.
Connected applications can propel healthtech forward
Robust, reliable connectivity is key to a successful and reliable rollout. It’s a common theme to an increased adoption of robotics, VR and AV technologies; asset tracking and management of medical supplies and equipment; and delivering real-time data to doctors and nurses from a patient’s bed.
Likewise, innovation itself is underpinned by connectivity. Without a reliable connection to explore data, deliver real-time communications, test potential solutions and deliver them, the pace of invention is hampered. It is critical that disruptors in healthtech have access to low latency connectivity, and ample opportunity to test and demonstrate across a variety of use cases.
Recently, the Government published its Wireless 2030 scenario analysis, looking into uncertainties around the demand for, and scenarios for, the future of wireless connectivity in the UK. For me, two aspects of this report were notable. The first found that ‘truly revolutionising uses, that will underpin a digitally and data driven economy, require the functionality of standalone 5G network infrastructure, as opposed to the UK’s current 4G network. The second highlighted the role of connectivity solutions such as private networks in providing value in the public sector, particularly for delivering remote procedures in healthcare.
This rings true with a number of projects Cellnex UK is currently supporting, including the deployment of 5G solutions to enable deep tech innovation organisation CPI to host a testbed for organisations to design, develop and test digital and Internet of Things (IoT) solutions for the sector.
The role of connectivity in healthcare
While testbeds can demonstrate and commercialise disruptive 5G-enabled healthtech innovations like asset tracking, which can help to prevent the costly loss of wheelchairs, breathing aid apparatus and other items; the sector itself is already reliant on dependable connectivity.
It is vital for increased data security, the adoption of robotics and audio-visual technologies, including the use of VR headsets for surgery, and other virtual trials which allow doctors to interact with patients remotely. All of this is in addition to ‘standard’ expectations around significantly improving connectivity and latency speeds.
Consider the vast array of medical equipment already in widespread use – from waiting room management systems to biosensors for health monitoring, and communication tools like Smartpage, or smartphones for doctors and nurses. Now consider what would happen if these applications lost connectivity.
Hospitals are often vast buildings - not all of them are modern or built with connectivity in mind. ‘Not-spots’ come in many shapes and sizes – from lift shafts to stairwells and connecting corridors, and their impact can be huge. Connectivity solutions including in-building Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) can address these issues by providing uninterrupted wireless coverage. DAS can help to improve communications within the hospital itself, meaning it’s easier for health workers to quickly respond to issues, no matter where they are; and patients and visitors can easily make external calls – which has become particularly important in recent years, with restricted visiting during the pandemic.
Public and private sector must work together for the future of healthcare
With more focus on connected solutions across the country there is a greater opportunity to upscale and commercialise applications to encourage a more widespread ‘embracing’ of healthtech. This notion chimes with the Wireless 2030 Report, which explores four scenarios for the future of wireless connectivity in the UK. One envisions a shift from ‘reactionary to preventative’ healthcare on a ‘transformational scale’ – if ‘demand for connectivity is high and in equilibrium with supply, needs are met through a cohesive mix of public and private entities’.
This year, NHS England announced intentions to treat up to 50,000 patients at home through ‘virtual wards’, in a move designed to ease pressure and reduce demand on hospitals – with as many as 20% of hospital admissions avoidable. The success of this rollout will rely heavily on connectivity, particularly within more remote corners of the country.
Looking to the future, R&D projects which explore the link between connectivity and a successful rollout of innovative use cases in the sector will be pivotal in ensuring the UK keeps up with our global counterparts. Continued private research, combined with Government funding, will help clear the path - we are lucky to be home to some of the most impressive researchers and top educational institutions in the world, but are lacking in the means to take this knowledge to viable, tangible applications and products. Robust infrastructure can bring this to fruition.
If successful, the sector can show how 5G technology and enablers such as telecoms infrastructure, DAS, small cells, private networks and fibre - can open doors for innovation and digitised operations across other industries, from manufacturing or energy to transportation and logistics.