Affordability is one of the key issues that must be addressed if the health and care sector is to take full advantage of the benefits of 5G.
An online event entitled Connected Care: Enabling rural care through 5G and tech infrastructure, organised by Future Care Capital, was told that cost was an issue for both rural and urban areas.
The webinar heard that rural and urban communities could learn from each other when it came to 5G.
Ann Williams, Commissioning and Contracts Manager (Adult Social Services) at Liverpool City Council said her area had connectivity – but at a price.
“It’s available at £25 per month but people can’t afford that. They can’t afford to feed their family or pay the rent. So the last thing they will do is pay for a broadband contract and connectivity.”
She added that one care home that connected to 5G as part of the trial during the pandemic used data for keeping people entertained. This involved high usage. If they had been on a normal contract they would have been using a month’s data in a week.
The cost of data was leading to inequality. For example lack of connectivity has meant many children have not been able to access online education in lockdown.
Plans were in hand to help them catch up. But these also rely on good connectivity.
Another member of the panel was Tony Sceales, Head of Programme Development at theDigital Culture Media Sport (DCMS) 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme.
He said there was a need to focus on ensuring sustainability for schemes once the DCMS funding ends.
He added that 5G was opening up so many possibilities. “For example high definition scans can now be transmitted across the network from people’s homes in a secure way.
“This means more immediate care can be given and a decision made on the spot about whether to take somebody to hospital or not. That avoids an unnecessary admission with all its add-on costs.”
Colin Wood, 5G Rural Dorset Programme Manager, said this could be a huge benefit in his part of the country.
The fact that Dorset has no motorways meant that connectivity from 5G was even more important.
“We want to work with Liverpool to share knowledge. We want to be able to use 5G to help people stay in their homes longer and stop them ending up in acute care unnecessarily.”
Liverpool’s 5G health and social care trial has involved working with a large teaching hospital and has flagged up a number of issues.
Ms Williams explained: “Doctors want to speak to people in the community so that’s where we needed the 5G connectivity. That’s where support is required.
“This time round we’re working with the CCG (Clinical Commissioning Group) and Mersey Care as part of the 5G Consortium working to make sure the new technologies are open to everybody.”
She added that although Liverpool has seen some Anti-5G campaigning, overall the communities who are benefiting really appreciate the service.
“It has opened a new world for people and in some cases meant greater independence. It’s helped combat loneliness and that’s been very useful for families during the pandemic.”
Chairing the event, Dr Peter Bloomfield, Future Care Capital Head of Policy and Research, said it was important to clearly communicate the benefits of 5G and what it means outside of a technical sense.
Liz Jones, Policy Director at the National Care Forum (NCF), said the pandemic has driven a rapid uptake of digital technology across the social care sector.
“It has moved us on significantly since February. A motivator has been the need to connect to health professionals virtually.
“This has involved accessing a whole range of consultations that probably would never have happened otherwise”.
But she warned that access to the benefits of the new technology were still patchy in many parts of the country.
However some good news is that the NCF have been working on a scheme funded by NHS Digital called The Hubble Project testing different technology that members have been using.
“We’re hoping this will really inspire the sector. Some schemes involve more predictable technology like electronic care planning. But there’s also quite innovative stuff around acoustic monitoring and circadian lighting.
“A key thread running through has been the challenge of getting access to 4G – never mind 5G – for reliable enough broadband.
“We’d welcome anything that can come out of the work in Liverpool and Dorset that will enable us to think about how to enable reliable functioning connectivity.
“Thats going to be transformational. Especially if it’s affordable.
“We might be able to move to the next generation of technology pretty quickly if only we can sort out the connectivity.”