The history of technology is not a series of giant leaps; it is a smooth process of adding minor improvements. Even the late Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” in 1969 was the culmination of several decades of incremental progress in rocketry, computing, telemetry, and a dozen other technologies.
The same is true for the technology that is driving the current boom in telemedicine. The basic unit of telemedicine, the telephone, was invented over 140 years ago. However, even the telephone system was built on the back of the pre-existing telegraph network. By the time television was developed much later, the idea that a telephone fitted with a television screen was the stuff of science fiction.
The Doctor’s Office in Your Hand
Today, the smartphone allows physicians and patients to interact in ways that had only been possible in the context of an office visit. The technology improves with every smartphone release. Today, the quality and resolution of the images obtained by most smartphone cameras are such that many dermatologists now diagnose their patients remotely. Smartphones can be fitted with various devices that can turn the device into a stethoscope, ophthalmoscope (for looking in eyes), or otoscope (for looking in ears).
The latest and perhaps most exciting addition to the technological package accelerating telemedicine is the build-out of the fifth-generation cellular network or 5G.
The Promise of 5G
It is commonly understood that each new generation of cellular technology accelerates communication speed and increases bandwidth. However, this is only half of the story. 5G features technological advances that add specific value to healthcare delivery.
The speed jump from 4G to 5G is substantial: 5G transmissions are 10–100 times faster than 4G. The bandwidth boost is even more remarkable. The 4G network supports 4000 devices per square kilometer; 5 G can support 1 million devices. This bandwidth jump permits the development of 360-degree virtual reality displays or 12 high-definition streams over a single network connection.
This degree of bandwidth is essential for the internet-of-medical-things, particularly wearable medical devices. Virtual/augmented reality platforms stand ready to revolutionize remote examinations and even surgeries.
In the short term, the advent of 5G will facilitate the development of a host of new monitoring devices that can deliver health data in real-time. As many as 70 million Americans are already using wearable medical devices, from activity trackers to insulin pumps. Recently, 86% of physicians reported that wearable devices increased their patients’ engagement in their healthcare. The better the technology becomes, the more likely patients and physicians will opt for telemedicine.