How full fibre is transforming how we get health treatment

Having a doctor’s appointment online is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the innovative ways the health service is harnessing digital medicine.
Having a fibre optic network pulsing beneath each street in the country is essential to delivering digital healthcareHaving a fibre optic network pulsing beneath each street in the country is essential to delivering digital healthcare
Having a fibre optic network pulsing beneath each street in the country is essential to delivering digital healthcare

Few aspects of our daily lives have been left untouched by the pandemic – from buying our groceries and watching our entertainment through to connecting with our friends and even doing our jobs, so many of our interactions have moved online. The way we access healthcare is no exception.

Surgeries switched from face-to-face appointments to video consultations and telephone calls at the start of the spring lockdown, with doctors describing the switch to remote working as having been accelerated from “five years to five months”. Other services have moved online too, from type-II diabetes education delivered by MyWay Digital Health through to secure video messaging systems in intensive care units, so patients can keep in touch with relatives.

That switch to providing more and more healthcare over the internet is here to stay. The Scottish Government’s Digital Health & Care Strategy commits the health service to make information flow better internally and to help people to use digital technology to manage their own health and wellbeing.

Unlike streaming a song or a film, taking part in an online doctors’ appointment is a two-way process; the doctor needs to be able to see the patient just as much as the patient needs to be able to see the doctor. Having a fibre optic network pulsing beneath each street in the country is essential to delivering digital healthcare.

“There’s always a lot of focus on download speeds, but uploads speeds are important too,” points out Elaine Doherty, regional lead for Scotland and the north east of England at CityFibre, the UK’s third largest network infrastructure provider. “It’s called a symmetrical service – you need a fast upload speed as well as a fast download speed so the patient’s computer can send good images back to the doctor so they can see and diagnose the illness.

“The 5G mobile phone signals also tie back into fibre networks. That means paramedics at the scene of a car crash, for example, will be able to send ultrasound images and other information to hospitals, so they can consult with doctors and also so the medical teams know more details about the patient’s injuries before they arrive.”

Fibre uses pulses of light to transmit data along a tiny glass tube, allowing it to handle more information more quickly than electrical signals passing along a traditional copper wire. Laying fibre beneath every street will enable residents to access digital healthcare when and where they need it.

“As a society, we are increasingly dependent on fibre optic networks as the backbone for our day-to-day communication, perhaps never more clearly illustrated than during the current pandemic,” says Ritchie Somerville, head of strategy at the University of Edinburgh’s Data-Driven Innovation initiative. “The ability of these networks to manage the data generated by our day-to-day needs is critical. This is no more apparent than in healthcare, for example as we have moved to remote GP appointments.”

Shifting doctors’ appointments online is just one step on the digital journey. Having digital healthcare delivered over fibre networks also opens up further opportunities for innovation.

Somerville adds: “In Scotland, we are so lucky to have benefitted from the investments by network providers such as CityFibre across our cities, and this provides a strong foundation upon which our world-class and forward-thinking healthcare services can innovate; developing new services and harnessing new opportunities for data-driven innovation.”

As well as enabling digital healthcare to be provided in the community, fibre is also transforming data handling and telemedicine within hospitals too. Milton Keynes University Hospital approached CityFibre about connecting to the city’s fibre network, and now has its own connection and broadband.

The faster speeds and wider bandwidth means members of staff can access systems and patients’ data throughout the hospital. The network has also opened up opportunities for staff training, as well as providing the infrastructure for video consultations.

Looking further ahead, fibre is also essential for harnessing the potential of personalised or precision medicine, which involves giving the right treatment to the right patient at the right time. Precision medicine generates huge amounts of data – patients undergo advanced scans to form images of their bodies, as well as having their genetic code analysed. Bringing together the information about the patient allows medics to tailor treatments for that specific individual, rather than going through a trial-and-error process to find the right drug.

The University of Glasgow’s Imaging Centre of Excellence (ICE) is one of the places that’s pioneering the use of data-rich imaging in medicine. ICE is home to Scotland’s only high-resolution MRI scanner, and the first site in the UK to integrate the device into clinics, through its shared site with the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (QEUH).

Find out more about the work happening in Scotland at