How opportunities are unfolding for telcos in the healthcare space
During the initial 5G hype we heard many examples of the potential opportunity for telecommunications providers in the healthcare space. Now that telcos have undertaken early 5G roll-outs and have been able to explore healthcare opportunities it is a good time to assess which use cases are becoming reality, and where the skills and technology of telco are offering the most value. This was the aim of the Mobile Europe virtual conference, 5G Healthcare Panel, hosted by Darius Singh, STL Partners.
Firstly, let’s consider the opportunity from two plays; the connectivity play, and the applications or solutions that use the underlying connectivity. As is well documented, telcos have been seeking to grow their revenues for several years and growing their connectivity offering into the enterprise space. Leo Gergs, Senior Research Analyst, ABI Research, commented during the Mobile Europe virtual conference, that traditionally, in the consumer space the sale of connectivity is a very one directional, 'build and sell it' approach. However, enterprises require a more consultative, bidirectional approach, exploring “what is needed?” rather than, “here is what I have!”. We have recognized this also in TM Forum, where the Connectivity as a Service program explores how to solve the connectivity needs in a way that is seamless to the enterprise customer or end consumer. However, this isn’t exclusively a technology solution, it also requires new skills, in product and solution design and new types of sales skills.
Health providers are exploring the use of Mobile Private Networks, for acute hospital settings. This can enable them to more efficiently manage different use cases, such as monitoring the wait times in emergency departments, monitoring bed availability, managing the movement of patients into and out of acute care settings, and understanding blockages and delays. In addition, there is improved access to information between systems, to ensure that clinicians have the right information at the right time to improve decision making.
Jayne Rooke, Health and Care Sector Lead, West Midlands 5G initiative, commented that 5G is being used to help manage the care of patients in the home through a virtual ward setting, using home monitoring devices where doctors assessed the patient remotely. Sandeep Raithatha, Head of Strategy, Innovation & 5G IoT at Virgin Media O2 Business, outlined how it is helping to enable the connected care solutions for the West Midlands 5G initiative.
In Ireland, nearly a quarter of a million bed days were lost due to delayed discharges in 2021, largely due to the lack of community care to ensure continued monitoring post discharge.
Similarly high numbers are being recorded in the UK, all at a time that health services are extremely stretched and struggling to cope with demand.
While there is a new go-to-market and sales model required for enterprise connectivity offerings, potentially there is also a new solution required that builds on the connectivity offering. In the health setting, I would go further to suggest that health providers will be looking for a connectivity solution owner, where service level agreements will be used to assure the service quality, availability, and security, where the discretion over which technology to use will reside with the connectivity solution provider. Telecommunications operators are in a prime position to step up into this space. However, they do not have exclusivity here. As communications grows in complexity the consumer and enterprise customer expects increased seamlessness and ease of use. This demonstrates both the gap and the potential opportunity for the connectivity solution offering, which is to combine technology and managed services.
Leo also commented that he anticipated a shift from selling licensed or spectrum-based offerings towards a more network management and operations management offering as markets become increasingly open and deregulated.
Telecommunications operators will need to invest in the design of this offering, ensuring both the technology and managed service is profitable and sustainable, enabling a new scalable solution.
In addition to the horizontal end-to-end connectivity solution, some telecommunications operators are moving further up the value stack, seeking to capture a greater percentage of the growing digital health market. The global digital health market size was valued at USD 175.6 billion in 2021 and is projected to grow (CAGR) of 27.7% from 2022 to 2030.
Given telcos' strong brand, technology, skills, and relationships in their given regions many are making good progress. For example, Telstra in Australia is focusing on improving lives through connected care and is now the largest health software and technology company in Australia. Similarly, in Canada, Telus health has expended well beyond connectivity to provision of health solutions across the country.
These are excellent examples, of growth beyond connectivity, leveraging the trusted brand, local knowledge and culture, ability to co-create to develop the digital health solutions of the future, powering connected care.
In addition, there are many new entrants to the market. Telstra has openly discussed its growth strategy in this space through M&A. Given the volume of new entrants and smaller companies focusing on elements of the overall solution, the opportunity for telco to be that trusted brand in their given region, building end to end solutions based on components / elements from other often smaller players, is now proven and within reach.
Some of the remaining challenges in the health care space will be scaling solutions that are designed for patients and clinicians. Leveraging an ecosystem design in the health care space is still a futuristic opportunity. Here, many parties collaborate to deliver health solutions, each focusing on their areas of expertise, and where the design of the overarching solution is holistic and places the citizen at the center of the ecosystem, thereby designing for their experience from the beginning. Today, system integrations often continue to be point-to-point, rather than designed for open ecosystems where explicit consent of the citizen is captured and propagated through the complex mesh of systems and access to information is based on the explicit consent of the citizen. Here also, traceability and transparency on access needs to be recorded for audit purposes.
Providers will need to ensure a zero-trust policy, across the full-end to-end system. This will require design and management, preferably with in-built automated monitoring and escalation practices to ensure the system doesn’t grind to a halt under the weight of an overburdened manual checking system.
Joao Paulo Firmeza, Alticelabs, identified that challenges still exist in the data management layers, unifying of data resources and models and managing that end-to-end plane of interconnected data from multiple sources. This presents both a challenge today and an opportunity for telcos seeking to add value to the health ecosystem.
For telcos embarking on growth in the health sector, either at the connectivity solution layer or health application layers, co-creation and collaboration with health professionals and care providers, while striving to deliver value and solve their challenges, will be key. By ensuring that the solution is clinically driven, meeting the needs of the essential stakeholders at every step of the journey will fundamentally derisk this growth strategy.