Marek’s Take: Bringing 5G to the operating table

Chetan Sharma demonstrates how a 5G remote surgery might work during his Mobile Future Forward conference. (Chetan Sharma Consulting)
Marek's take

When operators and vendors expound on the many benefits of 5G networks, they often mention remote surgery as one of the most compelling use cases for 5G. But before you roll your eyes at the thought of surgeons conducting life-saving operations from afar, consider that there are many things we do today on the wireless network that sounded far-fetched 15 years ago.

Demonstrations of 5G remote surgery are already starting to happen. The Times of India reported that in June a surgeon in China performed a gall bladder surgery, called a laparoscopic cholecystectomy, from about 125 miles away using a 5G connection. The surgery was conducted in the remote area of the Shennongjia forestry district branch and was transmitted via live feed to experts in the Taihe Hospital in the city of Shiyan. China Mobile provided the 5G link.

The surgical team said that there was almost no network delay and the patient’s vital signs were stable during the entire surgery.

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Here in the U.S., consultant Chetan Sharma earlier this month demonstrated how a 5G remote surgery might work during his Mobile Future Forward conference. In this case, Sharma used a wired connection to simulate a 5G link. It was a dedicated link so there was no delay. Sharma wore a virtual reality headset connected to an operating room in Seattle. Using the VR headset and controllers he was able to plant a virtual screw in a patient’s spine at the correct angle. Meanwhile, in the Seattle operating room a doctor who also wore a VR headset was able to see what Sharma was doing and use a physical screw and place it in the spine on the operating table.

Sharma noted that for doctors, particularly specialists in certain areas, this remote surgery scenario allows them to provide their expertise to more people. “This is not only great for education and training but also real-life situations when expertise is needed from afar,” Sharma said.

And while he admits this may seem like a radical concept today, he believes that enough progress will be made so that doing remote surgery over a 5G connection will become a reality. “There are numerous breakthroughs in AI [artificial intelligence] and ML [machine learning], simulated 5G, computer vision, edge computing, advanced camera systems, VR and other technologies that are coming together in a seamless way to change how surgeries are done in the future,” Sharma said.

And Sharma isn't the only one who thinks 5G remote surgery will be a reality one day. Chris Penrose, president of advanced mobility and enterprise solutions at AT&T, said that as 5G networks mature, remote surgery will become more viable. He added that capabilities such as network slicing and lower latency will provide the network reliability that is necessary to make remote surgery a reality.

"As with any new technology, use cases must go through rigorous testing before they become mainstream. In our 5G collaboration at Rush Hospital in Chicago, we’re beginning with things like AR/VR for medical training and with large file transfers. Our goal is to get 5G learnings in less risky areas and then grow from there," Penrose added. 

Business model?

But is there a business model to support this scenario?  Sharma said that 5G remote surgery makes financial sense for certain types of surgeries where there may only be a few experienced surgeons in the world. Those surgeons can only handle so many surgeries a year because they are limited by location and availability. If some of their surgeries could be done remotely, they could do more.

Another scenario is where a specialist is located in a metro area but is currently spending time traveling to hospitals around the city to perform surgeries. Using 5G remote surgery, the specialist could stay at one location and perform more surgeries instead of driving to other hospitals.

Sharma added that the technology could be used to help train new surgeons. The only way surgeons get experience is through their time spent in the operating room. “We could make good doctors into great doctors because they could get more experience much earlier in their career.”

Of course, there are hurdles to overcome. Jason Elliott, 5G market development manager at Nokia, compares 5G remote surgery to autonomous vehicles, another 5G use case that is frequently mentioned by operators and vendors. He believes that remote surgery will evolve gradually. “Like autonomous vehicles, you have to look at the business model and the technical capabilities.”

Regulators will also want to weigh in before this concept gains traction. “Regulators will want to look closely at this. And regulation will have to evolve as well,” Elliott said.

But like Sharma, he predicts that 5G remote surgery will be commonplace one day. “We may soon look back and say, you mean you had to wait for a doctor for an emergency procedure? Now you don’t have to wait. You just connect to the network.”

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