Use of 5G NPN in two wards isn’t exactly creating ‘the UK’s first 5G hospital.’ What it does do: suggest a way we can actually finally modernise the national health service with useful technology like 5G
Does a new private 5G deployment for an NHS hospital in South London point to a whole new way for UK healthcare – and healthcare around the world - to better connect?
It’s probably too early to say—but given that it’s officially being dubbed as the first of a set of trials to investigate “the efficiency, safety and security benefits” of using “smart, 5G-connected technologies” in NHS hospitals, there’s maybe a basis for quiet ‘observation’ here.
In case you’re not familiar, ‘private 5G’ (also sometimes called NPNs—and whose rise we have been closely tracking) just means a mobile network with all the same technical profile as public 5G network, but which allows an organisation (or team of allied organisations) to deploy its own network, typically with dedicated spectrum and infrastructure, and isolated from public networks. There are different models, of course, but whichever is chosen, such networks can provide reserved access to own wireless spectrum, enabling applications that depend on 5G’s ultra-low latency and high bandwidth connections to be launched in specific sites and for industrial purposes.
Dedicated and “near-real-time” connectivity
And, of course, ‘industrial’ absolutely means the industry of healthcare as much as a smart factory or digital port. That’s power that researchers want to push into three main trials around dedicated connectivity for mission-critical digital health use cases including IoT (Internet of Things), AR (Augmented Reality) and AI (Artificial Intelligence) for both clinicians and patients.
The wider vision here is that the part of the NHS involved--NHS South London and Maudsley (SLaM) Foundation Trust’s internal ‘Digital Lab’--says it wants to “map out the rollout of wireless and smart hospital connectivity across the NHS estate over the next three to five years”.
It’s doing this with this work--part of a series of government-funded innovation trials—into how private 5Gs could be exploited to supply dedicated and “near-real-time” connectivity to power e-Observations, which is where clinicians use handheld devices to update patient records, an advance that it’s claimed will save valuable time and improve accuracy.
This new private 5G network will also be tested to see how good it is at linking up smart devices and monitoring tools to reduce wastage of expensive medicines and even track the air quality in wards.
The SLaM IT team will have access to expert maintenance support in other hospitals, thanks to an Augmented Reality Remote Expert tool, while the Trust will also be able to better plan space in public areas using Spatial Insights—software that uses AI to provide anonymised heat maps of crowd movement analysis out of Trust CCTV footage.
“We are proud to be partnering with Virgin Media O2 Business to create the UK’s first 5G-connected hospital,” said the Trust’s Acting Chief Information Officer, who added that exploring and using the latest technology supports SLaM’s core strategic aim of delivering outstanding mental health care for people who use its services, as well as their careers and families.
A complex, sometimes tragic, legacy. And we don’t just mean location
Students of medical history may be amused to note that this first example of NPN 5G-apps (called Maudsley Smart Hospital© and Maudsley Smart Pharmacy©) is taking place at two wards at Bethlem Royal Hospital—which of course, way, way back in the past was the famous (perhaps infamous) ‘Bedlam’. (We’re sure there are no lingering bad vibrations in the air that might impact transmission.)
Who’s supplying the tech here? Lead is the business arm of Virgin Media O2, VMO2, which is working with Nokia, which is supplying its “industrial-grade wireless connectivity” Digital Automation Cloud (DAC) platform for the trial. The overall national provider of information, data and IT systems for commissioners, analysts and clinicians in health and social care in England, NHS Digital, is also involved, as is Maidenhead-based boutique Anglo-Italian enterprise architecture and design consultancy, Bruhati. (NHS Digital, by the way, is actually running a wide set of this kind of trial to explore how 5G and wireless can help, including a pilot at University College London to explore real-time remote diagnosis and referrals in a mobile health setting.)
Not surprisingly, given it’s a trial and this is all sexy new technology, there’s a lot of Big Statements coming out here. For example, commenting on its involvement, Virgin Media O2 Business says it’s proud to announce the trial, which will show how next-generation technology can help create a smarter, modern healthcare service. Well, wouldn’t that be something we’d all really hate to see.
Along the same lines, analysts CCS Insight get quoted in the project material as being convinced that dedicated 5G in hospitals could open the door to a range of new NHS applications such as real-time tracking of patients’ conditions, remote support and round-the-clock monitoring of medicines and equipment. Again—don’t see much legislation being proposed to limit that.
More useful is CCS Insight’s noting that private 5G high throughput and low-latency characteristics could also improve the efficiency and security of existing operations, making healthcare services smarter, more accurate and more effective.
In our opinion, this actually isn’t handwaving, but a real glimpse of the future. A bit like 5G in the NHS, it’s too early to say if private 5G will actually take off quicker than public 5G (though there is good reason to think it will). But focused, dedicated, small footprint use cases like this are how it will break through.
Let’s not spend billions this time herding cats
There’s another call-back to history in all this, of course: some of us have a bit of scar tissue around previous waves of attempted digitisation of the NHS, especially the well-meant, but ultimately disastrous, National Programme for IT.
That failed for many reasons, but a big part of it was trying to computerise the NHS from the top down. We know that doesn’t work, so let’s do it this ‘first 5G UK hospital’ way: small successes that showcase the power and impact of great new tech like private 5G and build from there. After all, mobile networks are cellular, just like humans – let’s start with treating one cell at a time and build out from there using proven, scalable techniques.
No-one’s going to put you in Bedlam for that kind of thinking.