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While telecommunications providers are encouraging the development of industrial applications for 5G, remote surgery promises to be a valuable use of the wireless networking technology and robotics. At the same time, there are concerns about international competitiveness.
Last month, doctors in China remotely monitored portions of three simultaneous orthopedic procedures using surgical robots and 5G. All three operations were considered successful, in a milestone for remote surgery.
Each robot conducted preset commands in Zhangjiakou in Hebei province, Karamay in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, and the city of Tianjin, while the doctors monitoring the remote surgery were in Beijing, reported China Daily.
The operations went from 9:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. local time. Human surgeons still managed procedures such as implanting devices within bones.
Both still images and real-time video from the remote surgeries were clear, thanks to 5G, said Jiang Wenxue, head of orthopedics at Tianjin First Central Hospital. Tianjin is 136km (84.5 mi.) from Beijing.
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Western telecom providers such as Verizon and Sprint, as well as processor makers such as Qualcomm, have promoted 5G in the U.S. with initiatives such as the 5G Robotics Challenge. Meanwhile, China Telecom, Huawei, and power suppliers such as State Grid Group have been touting the speed, bandwidth, and reliability of the technology in China.
Other remote surgery trials
In January, a doctor in Fujian, a province in southeastern China, removed the liver of a test animal about 30 miles away. It was reportedly the world’s first remote surgery over 5G, which kept the lag time to 0.1 seconds.
In March, Ling Zhipei, chief physician at the First Medical Center at PLA General Hospital, worked with Huawei and China Mobile to guide the placement of a stimulation device in a patient with Parkinson’s disease. It was the first remote surgery on the brain over 5G.
“The 5G network has solved problems like video lag and remote-control delay experienced under the 4G network, ensuring a nearly real-time operation,” he said. “And you barely feel that the patient is 3,000 km [1,864 mi.] away.”
In April, a doctor carried out a “5G-powered tele-monitored operation” at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. Dr. Antonio de Lacy used his finger to draw on a screen and instruct remote colleagues 5km (3 mi.) away with only 0.01 seconds of lag time. Many operations over 5G so far involve such guidance rather than remote robotic control.
Back in China, cardiologist Huiming Guo at Guangdong General Hospital performed a remote surgery on a patient in Gaozhou People’s Hospital, 400km (248.5 mi.) away.
In June, surgeons at Beijing Jishuitan Hospital performed remote surgery via China Telecom’s 5G on a patient in Yantai in Shandong Province, about 316 miles southeast of China’s capital. China Mobile also assisted in a gallbladder removal in a remote surgery procedure over 200km (124 mi.).
That same month, orthopedic surgeons conducted two remote surgeries with the participation of China Telecom and Huawei.
Last month, 5G and a mixed reality interface were used in a thoracic remote surgery between First Affiliated Hospital of Nanjing and Pukou Central Hospital, 13km (8 mi.) apart. The first remote robotic dental procedure was also conducted in China.
There have not yet been any 5G remote surgery trials involving robotics in the U.S., partly because of U.S. Food and Drug Administration concerns about outcomes and safety.
As of July, China reportedly had more than 7,800 5G base stations. U.S. telecommunications carriers are rolling out 5G to certain cities over this year and next.
Pursuing the promise of 5G
“The combination of 5G technology with surgical robots is a huge technological advance that will help us share our skills with more patients in distant regions,” said Tian Wei, head of the team at Jishuitan Hospital. “People across society can now have access to top medical resources. In the future, using robots and 5G will be common. The medical community will be smarter.”
Several technology observers have expressed concern that the U.S. is falling behind China in developing 5G amid ongoing trade disputes. There is a geopolitical element to such announcements, not to mention bragging rights. China Daily is a state-owned media outlet, while the U.S. government prefers to let the private sector take the lead.
At the same time, proponents of the technology say that American telecommunications providers and application developers should rally to take advantage of 5G’s capabilities for the benefit of customers, patients, and business.