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Is 5G security more of the same for telemedicine?

Telemedicine has become the rage in Canada. In 2016, more than six technology companies launched apps providing virtual consultations to millions of potential patients. This budding field of health care is growing fast as doctors, patients, and care providers all realize the huge possibilities telehealth opens up. Health care without leaving your house—who wouldn’t want that?

As 5G network infrastructure becomes widespread, it promises to fuel the trend by boosting the connectivity and effectiveness of IoT devices used in telemedicine, but will this also translate to a boost in 5G security? Security is one of the most important yet tricky aspects of telemedicine—one we can’t ignore.

The virtual doctor will see you now

No one likes going to the doctor, even if you have the greatest doctor ever. First, you trek to the office, which may mean taking off time from work or a long commute. Then, you need to sit in a waiting room, surrounded by other sneezing and coughing patients for an undetermined amount of time, with only outdated magazines for entertainment.

Telemedicine cuts through inconvenience. Patients can video conference with their doctors from the comfort of their home, saving time, money, and frustration. For rural populations and patients with limited mobility, remote medical care is the difference between avoiding health care and getting your health under control with minimal life disruption.

While telemedicine is still in its early days, it’s poised for incredible growth. Canadian Health Infoway research estimates that digital technology affected CAD$20.1 billion in savings for the Canadian health care system between 2007 and 2016, and that 80 percent of Canadians say they would take advantage of available digital health solutions to renew prescriptions, make appointments, access lab tests, check immunization records, and view their medication histories. It’s the future, baby.

People are ready and willing to avoid visits to the doctor’s office if at all possible. Dr. Ed Brown, CEO and founder of the Ontario Telemedicine Network, predicts that 25 percent or more of all Canadian health care will be delivered virtually by 2020. The benefits of telemedicine are especially relevant to not only those living in remote areas but to doctors who can be more flexible with their scheduling and where they conduct work, to better serve their patients.

But without a strong technical foundation, the regulatory environment and consumer demand don’t matter. Telemedicine depends on the technology delivering it. The advancement of video conferencing technology, mobile devices, imaging, electronic health records and secure document sharing, wearables, and the IoT have made telemedicine a reality.

Connectivity breakthroughs with IoT

IoT makes it possible for doctors to efficiently and effectively monitor their patients remotely. Consider CellScope: They make an otoscope that plugs into smartphones and allows parents to take photos of their children’s inner ears, avoiding bimonthly trips to the doctor’s office, where they’re handed a prescription accompanied by a lollipop and sent on their way. There are also low cost, lightweight sensors embedded on wearable devices—like K’Track and Johnson & Johnson’s OneTouch Via—which enable continuous glucose monitoring for diabetes patients.

The key to the success of these devices is connectivity. The better the connections on mobile devices, the better the IoT and telemedicine can be. This is why the growth of 5G has such profound implications for health IT infrastructure.

Many telemedicine programs currently rely on 4G LTE technology. It’s not yet widespread, but 5G network infrastructure is expected to aggressively grow in Canada. The technology promises speeds up to 40 times faster than 4G LTE. Right now, telecom providers are preparing to test 5G to demonstrate its interoperability and increased network capacity. If and when those tests succeed—and 5G becomes mainstream—telehealth will become better, faster, and stronger.

5G security: benefit or risk?

Don’t pop the champagne yet. The excitement and opportunity opened up by 5G comes with a grain of salt called 5G security. Between HIPAA compliance and the protection of sensitive patient data, telemedicine will never progress without strong security measures in place. Any time information is communicated digitally, there are risks around privacy and security. Telehealth, where sensitive information flies back and forth between devices and databases, is no exception.

For all the benefits 5G offers—higher speeds, lower latency, and greater power efficiency—it also comes with risks like medical identity theft, the privacy of appointments, and data management, to name a few. No one wants to teleconference with a doctor if hackers can gain access to their deepest, darkest medical secrets.

5G will usher in more device types and actors, as well as greater use of the cloud and virtualization. This will lead to more security threats and a greatly increased attack surface. These include storing device identity and the identities stored by a network authentication application (NAA) separately and independently; conducting NAA audits and third-party certifications; and making secure access to remote provisioning is available for IoT devices that require low power consumption.

The development of 5G is a work in progress, but when it hits the mainstream, it will change medicine as we know it—hopefully for the better. For 5G and telemedicine alike to reach their full potential, 5G security needs to represent a big leap forward from the past. 5G has the potential for boosted security, but it’s not yet a guarantee. Until then, back to the Highlights magazines in the waiting room.