At a panel hosted by Health IT Now on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, telehealth innovators gathered to discuss how 5G could dramatically improve telehealth offerings for Americans.

5G is the next generation of wireless technology, and according to Qualcomm’s simulated tests, could provide instantaneous download and upload speeds and data transfer speeds, which are necessary for the kinds of services telehealth provides.

In short, telehealth allows patients to connect virtually with doctors, communicating via video chat or real-time imaging instead of trekking to a physical doctor’s office or if the patient is unable to easily leave his or her home. But telehealth services require a lot of bandwidth in order to allow patients and doctors to effectively communicate.

Many of the panelists said 5G can provide the bandwidth necessary to expand telehealth services to communities and help provide healthcare services to those who may be unable to attend a physical doctor’s office.

These lightning fast speeds are critical to telehealth because when you’re downloading images as a doctor (you need clear, fast images) to make a correct diagnosis because lives are on the line,” said Michael Romano, senior vice president of industry affairs and business development for the NTCA-Rural Broadband Association, at the panel. “We want to optimize that care.”

Panelist Meghan Conroy founded and runs CaptureProof, a “HIPAA-compliant app to capture, compare and share medical photos and video asynchronously to enable doctor-to-doctor and doctor-to-patient communication.”

CaptureProof could allow a patient to go over MRI results with his or her doctor from home, which can make a huge difference for patients who may be physically unable to travel.

I believe in the power of asynchronous telemedicine,” Conroy said. “We have a hugely powerful tool (video and imaging communication) that has been used socially but hasn’t been able to be applied to medicine.”

Lawmakers and the Federal Communications Commission are already working to accelerate 5G adoption. Last month, Senators John Thune (R-SD) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) introduced the STREAMLINE Small Cell Deployment Act (S. 3157) which would accelerate the widespread adoption of the “small cells” necessary for 5G connectivity. Small cells — which Romano said are about the size of a pizza box — can be attached on cell towers to provide a 5G wireless connection. On Tuesday, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr stated that he believed encouraging 5G adoption to increase access to telehealth was an area where the FCC could help.

Healthcare is our largest industry but it is our least productive industry as far as our bang for the buck,” said Bret Swanson, president of technology research firm Entropy Economics LLC, at the panel on Tuesday. “It’s an extremely costly thing. If we can turn healthcare from a productivity lagger into a leader, into an innovation industry, we can get more value and better capability for less money, serve patients better at less cost, and could help boost our overall economic growth rates.”

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