The healthcare of the future is to be connected. And that means solid Internet infrastructure. Is Europe ready?
The future of healthcare will be centred around robust connectivity infrastructure that enables connected and digital health. High-quality connectivity is a catalyst for the deployment of digital tools. Next-generation networks and the use of innovative technologies can offer digitization solutions capable of empowering patients and doctors, unleashing opportunities and benefits for the whole healthcare ecosystem value chain.
Therefore, it is of utmost importance to ensure the availability of high-quality networks across Europe. For example, we learned from an assessment conducted by Digital Radar that in Germany, robust high-speed internet connectivity is a critical factor in advancing the digital capabilities of hospitals.
Overall, we believe that Europe is making positive strides towards readiness, with solid investment in healthcare from the European Recovery and Resilience funding. For example, Europe has made considerable progress in expanding and improving its Internet infrastructure thank to the funds, including the deployment of high-speed 5G networks. These could help enable various use cases such as telemedicine, remote condition monitoring and real-time exchange of patient data.
Hospitals are implementing remote surgeries, and patients use real-time telemedicine services—more innovations like continuous health monitoring or virtual hospitals. China already implements 7G and 8G internet, while Europe is rolling out 5G. Can you explain if we have a gap between the performance of the internet and the needs of modern medicine?
Robust and dependable connectivity forms the foundation for successfully implementing cutting-edge medical use cases such as remote surgeries, real-time telemedicine, and remote health monitoring. It is imperative to consistently evaluate the latest advancements in connectivity technologies to facilitate the digitalization of the healthcare sector.
5G technology is already making a significant impact and provides numerous applications that simplify the work of healthcare professionals and enhance patient care. However, there is untapped potential in how a common mobile standard can bring about transformative changes. We advocate for a strong partnerships involving clinical representatives, health equipment manufacturers, and the mobile industry to collaboratively establish a more powerful new standard tailored for the future of health. Speed should not be the primary/sole focus; instead, the emphasis is on investing in technology that genuinely benefits healthcare.
However, it is equally important to recognize the significance of optimizing the capabilities of existing infrastructure, such as the ongoing deployment of 5G networks throughout Europe. We are actively engaged in deploying 5G networks within various university hospitals in Germany and Italy. These deployments serve as testing grounds for pioneering healthcare use cases, ensuring that we harness the full potential of 5G to benefit healthcare advancements.
But at the end of the day, internet speed is only one of the determinants of the digital transformation of healthcare. Which challenges are critical for today?
Several other challenges are equally, if not more, critical for today’s healthcare transformation. From the perspective of Vodafone in health, here are some of the key challenges:
- Cybersecurity: Protecting patient data and ensuring privacy is paramount. As healthcare becomes increasingly digital, safeguarding sensitive patient information from cyberattacks and data breaches is a constant challenge;
- Interoperability: Healthcare systems often use different technologies and standards, making it challenging to share data seamlessly between providers, institutions, and devices. Achieving interoperability is essential for efficient and effective healthcare delivery;
- Healthcare Workforce: Healthcare professionals are facing increasing workloads and burnout. The need to digitize and automate repetitive tasks can help free up time so healthcare workers can focus on attending to patients rather than mundane administrative tasks—and ensuring that the workforce can access up-to-date and easy-to-use digital tools to enable collaboration and virtual working.
- Digital divide: The digital divide can arise from various factors, such as limited digital literacy or insufficient access to the necessary connectivity to enable the utilization of digital tools. This disparity applies to both patients and medical professionals. Regarding new technology, our focus should not solely be on developing and launching advanced solutions in the market, hoping for positive impacts. Instead, we must intensify our efforts to narrow the digital divide by making digital tools more accessible and user-friendly. This approach ensures that both patients and medical staff can ultimately reap the benefits of these tools.
All doctors fear the situation when the internet suddenly slows down or fails during a remote operation, where the patient’s life and health are at stake. Is such an internet blackout scenario possible?
Remote operation is a frequently cited use case when discussing the future of healthcare. The advancement and increased deployment of 5G, with its low latency capabilities, has the potential to serve as the catalyst.
Vodafone has already deployed similar use cases in Italy known as the Remote Proctoring Solution, where a medical device specialist can remotely support operations through 5G and AR glasses. While 5G and other types of connectivity can bring significant benefits, a hospital would never put the patient’s life at stake and solely rely on remote control. Similar to further technological advancements like AI, the technology looks to support healthcare professionals in delivering care to patients but certainly not replace them.
Why has the telecommunications provider created its digital health department?
We have consistently been involved in healthcare, for example by providing connectivity services to hospitals, linking millions of medical devices worldwide through our Global IoT network, and delivering telemedicine solutions across various nations. The establishment of a dedicated healthcare division, known as Vodafone in Health, further underscores our commitment to participating in the ongoing digital revolution within the healthcare sector.
With this dedicated healthcare division, we work with a variety of healthcare clientele, which includes hospitals, clinics, MedTech companies, and individual patients. By working together we can use our enhanced understanding to better craft and offer products and services more closely aligned with their specific needs.
Home monitoring represents the most promising domain within the Internet of Medical Things
The digitalization of the healthcare industry necessitates a collaborative effort from all stakeholders along the value chain. By assembling a team of experts in healthcare technology, data management, security, and connectivity, Vodafone is better equipped to engage effectively with relevant stakeholders and communicate effectively within the healthcare industry.
Can you please provide some case studies of implementing innovations in health care that you have been involved in recently and that have impressed you the most?
I had the opportunity to participate in the Global Health Forum in Lisbon recently. This two-day event aims to tackle some of the major healthcare challenges that individuals and governments are expected to encounter in the upcoming years.
In that event, Vodafone Business Portugal showcased an innovative solution called Hospital@Home. Hospital@Home is a remote patient monitoring solution that enables health professionals to monitor and clinically evaluate patient data such as blood pressure, heart rate, blood glucose, oxygen level, weight & body mass indexes and temperature. The core component of the solution is the Medical Hub, which is preconnected to all medical devices and provides continuous connectivity supported by Vodafone’s network core. This ensures that patient data are captured and safely transmitted to medical professionals without interruption. The beauty is that the functionality is not dependent on patient interaction, such as connecting a device to the internet. This is key for all home care equipment.
Another example would be the Remote Proctoring Solution launched by Vodafone in Italy. Working with Artiness at the IRCCS San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, we’ve conducted a clinical trial to perform intrusive heart surgery using a remote proctoring system. Using augmented reality (AR) visors, connected and managed by 5G and MEC, the remote expert, also known as the proctor, has access to live medical data and a patient-specific holographic model of the heart streamed directly from the operating room. The surgeon, who can also interact with the 3D model, receives from the proctor real-time instructions on how to continue the surgery thanks to the speed and low latency of 5G edge computing technology.
How do we close the gap between healthcare’s big digital health ambitions and the paper-based or data-siloed reality?
Closing the gap between healthcare’s ambitious digital health goals and the current paper-based or data-siloed reality is a complex challenge that Vodafone in Health is actively addressing. Here are some new actions that need to be undertaken:
- Interoperability Standards: We advocate for the development and adoption of interoperability standards that enable seamless data exchange between different healthcare systems and providers. This will require strong collaboration between policymakers, national healthcare systems, healthcare software developers, and medical device manufacturers.
- Cloud-based solutions: On-premises solutions remain the most common instance for most healthcare organizations across the EU. The adoption of secure, cloud-based healthcare solutions would not only help eliminate the need for physical paper records and enable secure access to patient data remotely, but it would also help relieve pressure for healthcare IT staff.
- Training and digitalization: Healthcare staff face significant workload and pressure, limiting their ability to train or learn to use new digital tools. Ensuring that the right training programs, digital tools, and technologies are in place to empower healthcare workers will be fundamental in driving behavioural changes in healthcare and ultimately help automate administrative tasks and free up more time for delivering care to patients.
The internet of medical devices is already increasing. What should patients and doctors expect from the IoMD that remains a virtual concept?
Home monitoring represents the most promising domain within the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) for growth and opportunities. A growing trend aims to minimize hospital stays while maintaining quality care within the patient’s home.
IoT-enabled medical devices play a pivotal role in this scenario by enabling continuous patient monitoring without requiring direct interaction. Simultaneously, this reduces the workload on healthcare professionals such as nurses and doctors. For the success of MIoT, these devices must come preconfigured and ready to seamlessly transmit patient data to healthcare providers without the need for manual setup by patients or hospital staff. An excellent illustration of this concept is Vodafone’s Hospital@Home, as I mentioned before, this functionality does not rely on patient interaction such as device setup or internet connection. This is key for all home care equipment.
The proliferation of MIoT is not only limited to home monitoring; other use cases include virtual wards, clinical trials and in-clinic patients. These MIoT use cases will include features like wearables and sensors for continuous or episodic vitals monitoring, customizable mobile apps or automated data capture for in-hospital or remote patient monitoring, to name a few.
At present, a significant number of medical devices use Bluetooth to send data to a mobile device or tablet, which is then shared with healthcare personnel at hospitals. However, the evolution of medical devices will require harnessing more sophisticated connectivity options, such as cellular networks, to enable immediate internet connectivity for automatic data transmission. To expedite this shift, policymakers, medical device manufacturers, and connectivity providers must collaborate in designing medical devices that are fit for the future.
How will IoMD be developing, and won’t data security-related issues hinder the benefits it promises?
We view data security concerns not as a barrier to the development and widespread adoption of IoMD. Security and data integrity can be effectively addressed by solution providers like Vodafone, as our IoT platform incorporates a range of built-in features to mitigate these risks.
The primary challenge in mitigating cybersecurity risks relates to human factors. Numerous studies on healthcare cybersecurity indicate that a significant number of patient records are compromised due to falling victim to phishing scams, surpassing other causes like external cyberattacks and theft. Furthermore, the growing prevalence of bring-your-own-device policies and remote work means that a substantial volume of data is transmitted over or accessed from off-premises locations, making this data more vulnerable to cyber threats.
Therefore, comprehensive cybersecurity contingency plans in healthcare should encompass interventions focused on human behaviour, extending beyond technical controls. An effective information awareness and training program should not merely impart knowledge about proper cybersecurity practices but also incorporate behavioural science to modify deeply ingrained online habits.
Can you share your vision of the hospital of the future?
Our vision of the hospital of the future is focused on improving every stage of the patient journey. We can help shift the balance away from reactive care provided by a small number of overstretched hospitals and towards personalized, preventative, participatory and predictive care delivered in the most convenient settings.
The future of hospitals and the way care will be delivered will be reflected in 3 different areas:
- Digital hospital campus: Central to every digital campus is the deployment of the proper connectivity and cloud infrastructure. Only through reliable networks and scalable cloud capabilities can hospitals ensure the seamless integration and collaboration needed for an ecosystem of solutions that delivers the right support for clinicians and patients
- Hospital without walls: Hospitals need to relieve pressure at the centre by addressing care needs in the community or at home. The goal is for patients to be supported outside of a hospital’s walls through telemedicine, virtual therapy sessions and remote-patient monitoring capabilities to receive the right level of care they need at home.
- Social care and wellbeing: With a rapidly ageing population, the budget spent on adult care is rising. To continue providing high-quality healthcare to this increasing demographic, national healthcare systems and community health and social care organizations must deliver effective remote patient monitoring and virtual consultation solutions for chronic conditions and reduce the impact on secondary care.
So what should the hospitals do to prepare for this?
Hospitals can take several steps to better prepare for the future of healthcare, which is likely to be characterized by technological advancements, changes in patient expectations, and evolving healthcare delivery models. These include but are not limited to embracing Telehealth and Remote Monitoring to enable the delivery of care beyond the hospital, adopting robust and secure connectivity infrastructure as the foundation for all innovative health solutions in and beyond the hospital, training the healthcare workforce for the future by equipping them with the right digital tools and technologies and encourage a culture of innovation and adaptability and – last but not least – fostering innovation partnerships by collaborating with technology partners across the industry to stay at the forefront of healthcare innovation.
What gives you hope that future healthcare will be better than today?
We are witnessing remarkable technological advancements in healthcare, encompassing AI, telemedicine, wearable devices, and 5G connectivity, all with the potential to revolutionize the field. These innovations offer solutions to the growing healthcare demand resulting from extended life expectancies and the rising prevalence of chronic diseases requiring long-term care. As we transition into a new era of healthcare driven by data, including electronic health records and patient-generated information, it becomes imperative for Vodafone and other industry stakeholders to support healthcare providers in efficiently capturing, accessing, storing, and ultimately utilizing this data to make informed decisions and tailor treatments to individual patient requirements.
With increased government investments in public health and collaborative efforts among researchers, healthcare providers, policymakers, and health technology providers, a unified approach to addressing the challenges in healthcare is poised to pave the way for a better future in healthcare.