By Krissie Ferris, Research Analyst, Centre for Health Solutions, and Cornelia Calugar-Pop, Manager, Technology, Media and Telecommunications
Last month, our colleagues in Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) released their 2021 predictions report, which highlights how global trends in TMT may affect businesses and consumers worldwide. One of the predictions, 5G is not hazardous to your health; Busting the radiation myth, addresses concerns that ‘radiation associated with the technology can cause cancer and weaken the immune system enabling COVID-19 to spread’. This blog explains some of the evidence presented in the TMT prediction to dispel these concerns while also exploring 5G’s potential in transforming healthcare.
What is 5G and how does it work?
The fifth generation of cellular technology, 5G, is the next leap forward in speed for wireless devices. It enables users to download data faster, has greater bandwidth, and can handle more connected devices with much less time lag. To understand whether 5G and other cellular mobile technologies are safe you first need some understanding of how mobile networks work. As with earlier cellular networks (3G and 4G), 5G networks consist of a nationwide grid of cell sites that generate radio waves from transmitters. The radio waves encode data received by 5G-enabled technologies – such as 5G-enabled phones.
Radio waves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum, and are a form of low-energy, low-frequency radiation. At the other end of the electromagnetic spectrum are the high-frequency, high energy, ionising radio waves such as X-rays, gamma rays, and some types of ultraviolet light. These ionising radio waves can affect cellular activity and DNA, potentially leading to cancer (figure 1). However it is very unlikely that 5G, non-ionising radio waves will affect anyone’s health.1
Figure 1. The radio waves generated by 5G are on the low end of the electromagnetic spectrum
Public misperceptions of 5G
While there will always be a small number of people convinced that wireless technologies are harmful, at times of uncertainty, social media can provide a mechanism for conspiracy theories to flourish and proliferate. For example, a Deloitte consumer poll conducted in May 2020 found a fifth or more adults in six out of the 14 countries surveyed, agreed with the statement ‘I believe there are health risks associated with 5G’ (figure 2). The TMT prediction expects these fears to continue to grow and that by 2021 that between 10 to 20 per cent of adults in many advanced economies will mistakenly equate 5G with possible harm to their health.2
Figure 2. A substantial proportion of consumers in advanced economies believe that 5G can be harmful to their health
In the UK, Public Health England (PHE), now part of the National Institute of Health Protection (NIHP), leads on health matters associated with radio waves or ‘radiofrequency electromagnetic fields’ and has a duty to advise government on any concerns over health effects caused by radio emissions. PHE’s view is that ‘the overall exposure is expected to remain low relative to guidelines and, as such, there should be no consequences for public health’.3 In addition, Ofcom, the regulator for communications services, has carried out radio frequency electromagnetic field (EMF) measurements near mobile phone base stations for many years, including 5G-enabled mobile base stations in various towns and cities across the UK. It found that at every site emissions were a small fraction of the levels set by the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protections.4
What are the benefits of 5G in healthcare?
5G, with its faster data download speeds, low latency, reliable connections and more ‘lanes’ in the network to organise and allocate bandwidth, has the potential to drive numerous advancements, including digital transformation across all industries, including healthcare. 5As we noted in our 2019 report Closing the digital gap: Shaping the future of UK healthcare, 5G technology has the potential to provide a strong foundation for innovation, enabling the interplay between health sensors, algorithms and smart devices and supporting telemedicine and remote monitoring more efficiently and cost-effectively.6More specifically, 5G technology has the capacity to support numerous applications ranging from virtual reality and remote surgery, to drones transporting essential supplies, to real-time health monitoring to IoT enabled hospital management systems.7 In the past ten months, 5G technologies have also been leveraged to support the COVID-19 response (figure 3).
Figure 3. How 5G can support the fight against COVID-19
Further examples of 5G applications currently being applied in healthcare include:
- Connecting care homes: Care homes in Coventry have received contact-free treatment from GPs using 5G technology as part of a trial with West Midlands 5G (WM5G) and Tekihealth – a telemedicine company. Through a 5G connected diagnostics tool, patients receive a full examination, with real-time information sent to the GP. This results in less physical contact, limiting the risk of contracting Coronavirus, but also releases travel time allowing the doctors to treat more patients.8
- Telepharmacy: PAMAN is being piloted by Liverpool City Council to enable pharmacists to observe patients taking medication though a video-audio Medihub in the patient’s home linked via the internet to the pharmacy or monitoring centre.9
- Emergency response: The East of England ambulance trust is working with the O2, Visonable and Launchcloud to equip ambulances with 5G-enabled video technology that enables consultants to video link with paramedics, for fast, accurate assessment and treatment in ambulances.10
- Remote imaging: NHS Forth Valley and Moorfields Eye Hospital is trialling remote eye examinations in 4K resolution using 5G broadband. Tests have demonstrated that an eye image of high enough quality to be used in a clinical environment can be streamed in real time using the 5G technology.11
- 5G clinic: Vodafone has worked with the University Hospital Düsseldorf to establish a 5G clinic that can test new, more efficient approaches to healthcare services such as surgery rehearsal, remote access to expertise and enabling rural clinics to provide access to expert treatment without patients or clinicians needing to travel.12
Enabling 5G to transform the future of healthcare
Our TMT prediction reveals that ‘it is very unlikely that the radiation from 5G mobile networks and 5G phones will affect the health of any single individual, be it a 5G user, a user of any other generation of mobile phones, or any individual in the vicinity of a mobile network’.13 However, in order to reach its full, disruptive potential, public concerns about safety need to be addressed. The telecom industry, together with government communication bodies and science programmes should work together to counter the misinformation and provide an evidence based narrative, to educate all user groups, including those with low levels of digital literacy.
If you are interested in further exploring how 5G technology can improve patient and staff outcomes, see our Deloitte Health Tech Catalyst webinar on Digital Transformation in Healthcare, where we hear from Adrian Smith, Health and Social Care Solutions lead, West Midlands 5G.