Carrier services help expand healthcare, with 5G in the offing

Many telehealth initiatives tap into wireless networking supplied by service providers that may start offering services such as Citizen's Band and 5G to support remote medical care.

There are connectivity options aplenty for most types of IoT deployment, but the idea of simply handing the networking part of the equation off to a national licensed wireless carrier could be the best one for certain kinds of deployments in the medical field.

Telehealth systems, for example, are still a relatively new facet of modern medicine, but they’re already among the most important applications that use carrier networks to deliver care. One such system is operated by the University of Mississippi Medical Center, for the treatment and education of diabetes patients.

Greg Hall is the director of IT at UMMC’s center for telehealth. He said that the remote patient monitoring system is relatively simple by design – diabetes patients receive a tablet computer that they can use to input and track their blood sugar levels, alert clinicians to symptoms like nerve pain or foot sores, and even videoconference with their doctors directly. The tablet connects via Verizon, AT&T or CSpire – depending on who’s got the best coverage in a given area – back to UMMC’s servers.

According to Hall, there are multiple advantages to using carrier connectivity instead of unlicensed (i.e. purpose-built Wi-Fi or other technology) to connect patients – some of whom live in remote parts of the state – to their caregivers.

“We weren’t expecting everyone who uses the service to have Wi-Fi,” he said, “and they can take their tablet with them if they’re traveling.”

The system serves about 250 patients in Mississippi, up from roughly 175 in the 2015 pilot program that got the effort off the ground. Nor is it strictly limited to diabetes care – Hall said that it’s already been extended to patients suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma and even used for prenatal care, with further expansion in the offing.

“The goal of our program isn’t just the monitoring piece, but also the education piece, teaching a person to live with their [condition] and thrive,” he said.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. One issue was caused by the natural foliage of the area, as dense areas of pine trees can cause transmission problems, thanks to their needles being a particularly troublesome length and interfering with 2.5GHz wireless signals. But Hall said that the team has been able to install signal boosters or repeaters to overcome that obstacle.

Neurologist Dr. Allen Gee’s practice in Wyoming attempts to address a similar issue – far-flung patients with medical needs that might not be addressed by the sparse local-care options. From his main office in Cody, he said, he can cover half the state via telepresence, using a purpose-built system that is based on cellular-data connectivity from TCT, Spectrum and AT&T, as well as remote audiovisual equipment and a link to electronic health records stored in distant locations. That allows him to receive patient data, audio/visual information and even imaging diagnostics remotely. Some specialists in the state are able to fly to those remote locations, others are not.

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