Envisioning a 5G-Powered Retail-Health-care Hub

Editor’s Note: This article by Mitzi Amon in Healthcare IT News is interesting because it underscores the importance of having faster, more robust connectivity in retail environments, especially as in-store pharmacies and clinics increasingly find their way into groceries and convenience stores. Anticipating this need, among others, we partnered with AT&T last summer to test 5G-enabled autonomous robots and provide retailers with a more private network connection than typically associated with in-store Wi-Fi.

 

If you’ve been to a big-brand grocery or department store recently, you probably noticed some form of healthcare outlet — or maybe you didn’t. These in-store pharmacies and clinics have become so omnipresent, right there next to the diapers, dog food, and green beans, that unless you use them, you may not notice them at all. 

This convergence of health care and retail has been happening for a few years and represents one of the fastest-growing corners of the health-care market. In fact, retail health is growing at 10% each year — twice as fast as conventional health care. 

The shared spaces are the latest and most obvious ways health-care providers have emulated their retail counterparts. Just as retailers moved on from the 1980s mall archetype toward a more individualized, customer-friendly model, so too are health-care providers — perhaps grudgingly. A large, decentralized health-care system is more complicated than similar retail models, but patient expectations and other drivers are pushing the change. As a result, today’s hospitals increasingly are foregoing the traditional, centralized architecture in favor of distributed points of care — separate or offsite surgical, imaging and testing facilities are the norm for the modern health system.

The goal is the same whether it’s a hospital or a hardware store — improve and enhance the customer experience. Today’s hospitals are changing their models to make using their services easier, faster and, if not more enjoyable, certainly less irritating. Health-care customers may not have the universe of options available to retail customers, but they do have options, including the easiest option of all — staying home.

Of course, this shift is about more than convenience. Because of the wave of health-care consolidations across the country, rural America is increasingly underserved when it comes to health care. In those areas, these clinics offer an opportunity to receive expert care from medical professionals in other parts of the country through advanced applications and technologies. We also can’t ignore the affordability angle for patients. To some extent, productizing care and being able to access existing infrastructure in other, larger facilities, drives down cost in the overall system.

The Technology of Customer Experience

For sure, there is more to customer experience than physical accessibility. Retailers are leading the way in implementing technology to improve their customer interactions, and it’s about more than just e-commerce. You see it in everything from streamlined checkout and smart shelves to mobile coupons tailored to customer history. 

The deployment of 5G networks will enable even more advanced, customer-friendly applications, something retailers and health-care providers understand well. For that reason, they are exploring creative ways not just to leverage 5G services, but also to partner with telecommunications providers to reach their shared customers.

The thinking is simple and sound: The ultra-low latency capabilities of 5G will enable innovations in all sorts of areas, including for the purposes of this conversation, intelligent retail and health care and telemedicine. In order for centrally located medical experts to access, read, and diagnose patients in remote clinic settings, often exchanging high-resolution medical imaging and other diagnostic information, low latency and high bandwidth are required. That’s where 5G comes in.

However, these networks require much denser networks with powerful computing that doesn’t yet exist across today’s networks. For users to take advantage of 5G’s many anticipated benefits, the network must be pervasive, and existing 4G LTE networks aren’t there yet. 

That doesn’t mean providers aren’t trying. In fact, they clearly see an opportunity. Before COVID-19, Verizon estimated half the country would have access to 5G by the end of 2020, and in March the company announced an additional $500 million investment in its own 5G network. Our own industry survey conducted with 451 Research found that 86% of operators expect to be delivering 5G services by 2021. The projections are aggressive for good reason: IHS Markit expects 5G to generate some $12.3 trillion in annual revenue by 2035.

Meeting those timelines requires upgrades at existing cell sites but also fast, widespread deployment of new sites. Finding available real estate for that many new deployments — especially in the densely populated areas at the front of the line for 5G service — isn’t easy. 

Enter the retail industry. Large retailers are in the business of reaching as much of the population as they can, and many of them already have a footprint that is the envy of cellular providers. The nation’s largest retail chain has 4,500 stores, and about 90% of the U.S. population lives within 10 miles of one of them. We look at that and see fast, easy, one-stop shopping. Telco providers see rooftops crying out for 5G equipment, with the potential to accelerate network densification and gain instant access to the vast majority of the U.S. population. 

There is an opportunity emerging here for a symbiotic relationship between retailers, health-care providers, and telecom operators to form a high-tech, customer-friendly hub for shopping and health-care services. Let’s look at the possibilities from the perspectives of each party.

Telcos: It’s All About the Footprint

As always with network deployments, activity around 5G will follow demand, and demand follows the population. That means urban environments are likely to be first in the queue, and real estate in most cities is at a premium. Every rooftop and light pole are potential homes for 5G towers or equipment, a reality that has been the subject of considerable discussion — only recently moving toward a clear resolution

Retailers already know the math, and most stores are placed strategically in proximity to as many consumers as possible. This is fertile ground for telcos, simplifying right-of-way negotiations and deployment times and ensuring significant network penetration. They also have ready-made customers in the retailers and health-care providers occupying the buildings that support their towers. 

Retail: Powering the Customer Experience

Customer experience has become a great differentiator in the retail space, as retailers evolve to meet the expectations of the Amazon generation. The last two years have been marked by growth in distribution centers and in the allocation of data center space supporting online retail and distribution. 

Enabling the online shopping experience and bringing all the simplicity of online shopping to in-store customers are the threads that connect today’s most successful retail organizations. The tools and tactics making the in-store part of that possible include sensor and customer tracking, demand analytics, 360o customer learning, and artificial intelligence deployed in interactive customer environments that leverage the Internet of Things in new and creative ways.  

These applications are only as effective as the networks upon which they exist and operate, and 5G is simply far superior to our current 4G networks. The increase in bandwidth will enable speeds up to 100 times faster than 4G, eliminating the slow or dropped service common in highly populated environments — such as crowded department stores.

A retailer with a 5G antenna on the roof providing pristine service for all of its in-store technologies and large swaths of customers faces few limits in its deployment and adoption of advanced technologies. 

Health Care: Expanding with Confidence

The goal of retail health care is to make many common health services more accessible, and it’s working. There are more than 2,700 Convenient Care clinics (CCCs) in the U.S., and those clinics have received more than 40 million patient visits. Today’s consumers can buy a gallon of milk, pick up a prescription from the pharmacy, and get a flu shot in a single stop. 

While these retailers and health-care providers increasingly are sharing physical space and many of the same motivations — improving customer experience chief among them — there are some important differences. Protecting customer data certainly is a priority for retail stores — and a challenge, considering estimates that 80-90% of those who log in to a retailer’s e-commerce site are hackers using stolen data — but patient privacy may in fact be even more sensitive. 

With that in mind, the security enhancements offered with 5G can harden existing retail health-care networks and potentially open the door to even more patient services in those CCC settings. 5G has anti-tracking and spoofing features, including more encrypted data, to reduce the amount of raw data being transmitted and help protect against hackers. 5G relies more on software and cloud support than 4G, which enables better monitoring, and 5G networks can be sliced into smaller, virtual networks with security tailored for various devices and applications.

Those kinds of advanced security features may eliminate some lingering reservations among health-care providers reluctant to dive fully into retail health care and embolden the more aggressive to expand their offerings. The increased bandwidth of 5G makes it easier to share and access not only sensitive files but also larger patient records, such as high-definition images and even videos from patient procedures. With no technological or security restrictions, it’s not a stretch to envision a world where anything short of surgery could happen in a CCC.

The Opportunity of Integration

There are plenty of arguments for this three-way marriage of convenience, but the full potential of this telco-retail-health-care convergence will be realized only if the parties collaborate. There may be benefits for all parties in spite of siloed planning, but there also will be opportunities lost.

Retailers and health-care providers who work closely with telcos can build offerings that take advantage of the on-site 5G capabilities, and telcos can gain not just rooftop real estate, but enthusiastic customers itching to stretch their data plans. 

Of course, maximizing the partnership may mean new investments in IT systems and infrastructure. For example, you wouldn’t want to build the industry’s most robust customer-experience program and then cross your fingers every time a storm threatened utility power. When you lean heavily into IT-enabled smart retail, power protection becomes paramount. 

Similarly, retail health-care centers, or CCCs, may seize the opportunity to expand their offerings and collect and/or transmit more sensitive patient data, but the enhanced security capabilities of 5G networks only go so far. Employees switching between external networks — to find an address for an insurance provider, for example — and more sensitive internal networks with private patient information will want to protect that sensitive information with secure KVM switches. 

These types of investments can be managed separately or more efficiently as a single, integrated system. Mobile edge computing (MEC) is an increasingly common model for 5G-enabled computing hubs, and it brings the power and planning of an integrated, modular data center to these types of network-edge locations. 

MEC deployments can be housed inside or out, preserving valuable space in the store. They can be configured to support AC power-reliant IT systems as well as the DC power plants and equipment common to 5G sites. As with all modular solutions, they can be configured to meet the needs of a specific site and deployed in a matter of days. MEC systems also provide low-latency local computing when even 5G isn’t fast or secure enough for the user; most commercial transactions in these types of settings would be handled with local computing.

The key to optimizing these retail-health-care-telco hubs is early communication among all parties and proactive planning to ensure the 5G capabilities are fully realized. A failure to communicate will result in squandered opportunities for everyone.

The Final Word

Eventually, all of this will happen with or without coordination between the interested parties. Retailers are going to continue to test the limits of technology to better serve their customers and give them more enjoyable experiences in their stores. Health systems are going to continue to decentralize their facilities and find ways to be closer to their patients and provide better interactions and outcomes. And telcos are going to find homes for their 5G antennas and expand their networks to deliver 5G services to both their subscribers and enterprises.

There is an opportunity now, however, while all of these things are happening simultaneously, to do it all better, faster, and more efficiently while meeting the needs of all parties and their customers.

 

This article was written by Mitzi Amon, director of health-care marketing at Vertiv, from HIT Consultant and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.