Imagine you’re in a futuristic clinic, standing in front of a middle-aged man. One of his arms is outstretched while the other stays limp, giving him the effect of a zombie. His face droops on one side. When he speaks, it sounds like his mouth is full of marbles. You talk to him, ask him to raise that limp arm, try to figure out what’s wrong with him. If you were a doctor—and maybe you aren’t—you could save him, could figure out that this man is having a stroke and treat him in time to stop the bleeding in his brain.
There’s no stroke victim in front of you, though. The man is not real. The clinic exists only in virtual reality, and your patient is a figment of the digital world, his symptoms a mere illustration of what might happen in real life.
This experience represents one possibility for the future of healthcare, a future that telecommunications company Qualcomm is throwing its weight behind. The company created this demo using its standalone Snapdragon 835 VR platform to show what how increasingly fast and low-latency networks could bring on an entirely new kind of healthcare—one where tools like VR help doctors better understand, diagnose, and treat patients in real life.
You probably know Qualcomm as a supplier of processors to smartphone manufacturers. But the company has engendered many aspects of mobile technology. Qualcomm’s first big product, introduced shortly after it launched in 1985, was a satellite-based system for tracking long-haul trucks. That technology paved the way for the launch of Whispernet on the original Kindle in 2007, and early-stage wireless charging pads in 2010. Its chips have powered entirely new capabilities in phones and drones, even making it possible to get into VR with just your phone. The company took an early lead in pioneering 3G and 4G. Now, as 5G proliferates, Qualcomm hopes it can harness those decades of experience in mobile technology to bring better connectivity to the healthcare industry.
From Mobile to Medical
This isn’t Qualcomm’s first foray into medical care. Six years ago, the company introduced Qualcomm Life, an offshoot focused on developing wireless technology for healthcare. Qualcomm was already building infrastructure to support the next generation of wireless tech; hospitals and home care seemed a worthy beneficiary. Today, as Qualcomm works to develop 5G—which promises higher-bandwidth, higher-speed mobile data connections—the bet on healthcare seems to be a good one: A new report, released today by Berkeley’s Hass School of Business, shows that by 2035, the economy of services in 5G will reach $12 trillion. A whopping $1.1 trillion will involve healthcare.
“It was a passion to see how mobile technology could impact other industries,” says Rick Valencia, the president of Qualcomm Life, who gave a keynote speech today at the Connected Healthcare conference in Boston. “Our goal in the end is to get patients connected in the hospital, in the home, or anywhere in between through one regulated medical grade and secure platform.”
Qualcomm Life’s first product, the 2net Hub, plugs into the wall like an air freshener and enables continuous monitoring of patients in their homes. The Hub connects to medical devices like glucose meters and wrist-worn blood pressure cuffs and securely transfers patient data back to a physician. A second platform, Capsule, integrates biometric readings across medical devices within hospitals.
Ultimately, Valencia’s vision for the connected healthcare of tomorrow looks like an expanded version of this. Every inhaler might have a small, built-in sensor to transfer usage data back to a physician; predictive algorithms could parse data from thousands of patients to flag just the ones that need urgent medical attention. Surgeons could explore a precarious surgery in virtual reality before making any incisions, or even diagnose patients remotely using VR. Valencia imagines an entire ecosystem—an Internet of Medical Things—and he believes 5G will make it all possible.
That future, though, comes with a heap of challenges. Just look at VR. Long before Qualcomm designed its stroke patient demo, VR had already earned plenty of hype in the medical space. It has been used for years as an experimental treatment for phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder, as a way to relieve pain, diagnose dementia, and bring young neurosurgeons inside operating rooms before they have to slice open a live human’s brain. As a training tool, VR promises to give med students the means to re-play a difficult surgery, to go back and study a cadaver or a lesion. As a diagnostic tool, it could bring physicians deeper inside an image or give them new ways to see a patient. But this kind of technology is still far from ubiquitous. Even after decades of excitement around VR in healthcare, it could be decades more before it’s widely implemented.
Walk, Don’t Run
While Qualcomm’s virtual reality demo provides a compelling proof of concept, even it won’t show up in medical schools any time soon. There just isn’t enough buy-in for all the gear required to pull off VR training, not enough VR content to make it the standard in medical schools or clinics. Networks are still too slow, and problems with latency spoil the experience. The healthcare industry is notoriously slow to adapt to new standards of care, and no one wants to spend extra time figuring out complicated technology. Most of all, no one wants to risk technology getting hacked or failing in a critical moment.
“You’ve gotta make that stuff magical, frankly,” says James Mault, a physician and the chief medical officer at Qualcomm Life. “Especially for someone that’s sick and has health issues, it’s a lot to ask of them to be figuring out how to use some device.”
The key is taking things slowly, with a healthy dose of patience. For now, as Qualcomm continues to build the platforms to support connected healthcare, the company hopes to rally both doctors and developers to take part in this future. The idea is to keep progressing with an eye on the time 5G wireless technology is widespread enough to be used across these devices.
“With a secure 5G network that enables us to get that data back to the caregivers in a meaningful way, we’re not that far away from personalized, data-driven medicine,” says Valencia. “It’s just a matter of getting those things aligned and making people understand how they benefit.”