What Role Will Drones Play in the Future of Healthcare?
From flying ambulances and robot doctors to medical products being delivered on demand, the future of medical care may be much closer to reality that we think. As drone technology advances to provide greater range, lower cost, and expanded capabilities, the application of drones in facilitating greater access to healthcare has garnered significant global attention. The lifesaving blood and medicine deliveries enabled by a nationwide drone program in Rwanda have received widespread praise, leading to approval from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to begin deliveries in North Carolina. Tanzania has implemented a similar system as part of a larger effort to address its chronic high mortality rate of women in childbirth. In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, UPS partnered with CVS to enable contactless delivery of essential medicines to residents in The Villages, Florida’s largest retirement community.
What’s more, drones are being used as mobile mini-laboratories for tuberculosis testing in Papua New Guinea. Making use of the long flight times necessary to access remote locations, these drones are capable of running polymerase chain reaction (PCR) procedures to amplify DNA samples before they even reach the lab. This capability not only reduces the strain on laboratory personnel and resources, it can decrease the time needed to return test results. With many results of COVID-19 tests taking several weeks to be returned to patients in the U.S., these PCR-enabled drones could greatly augment the U.S.’s ability to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. These innovative approaches could soon permeate into the wider U.S. healthcare network to help rectify disparities of access, especially to rural and underserved communities. For example, U.S. Indian Health Service providers and patients often must travel long distances on Native American reservations due to the distribution of communities, making long range drone deliveries an especially promising alternative.
One of the greatest advantages of using drones to deliver critical medical supplies is that they face few restrictions from the quality of transportation infrastructure or traffic conditions in a given location. Even in areas with well-developed infrastructure and road networks, drones are able to take a far more direct route to the scene of a medical emergency. A study in Stockholm, Sweden found that drones equipped with AED devices were able to reach the scene an average of 16.5 minutes faster than traditional medical services. Advances in drone cargo-carrying capabilities could soon allow for flying ambulances as well as rapid responses of medical teams to emergency areas. Response time is a critical element that can often determine the outcome of a medical emergency, making this time reduction a significant factor that could save countless lives.
Despite the great promise shown by these initial capabilities of drones in healthcare delivery, full implementation may not be so simple. A primary concern remains how to protect the security of the medical supplies that are delivered. As health precautions from COVID-19 necessitate that many services move towards contactless ordering and delivery, patients often have very limited interaction with their healthcare providers. Americans are also increasingly turning to online pharmacies for their medicines. Nearly 25% of consumers indicated that they’ve purchased prescription medications online. However, a review of online pharmacies found that nearly 96% seem to be in conflict with U.S. laws and pharmacy standards. When ordering pharmaceuticals online for delivery via drone, how can a patient know whether they’re actually receiving the correct medication? Without a reliable and straightforward method to verify the authenticity of medications once they’re delivered, this leaves unacceptable room for counterfeit medications to seep into supply chains and exacerbate an already deadly issue.
Consumer trust in drone delivery programs is another critical prerequisite for widespread use. However, a significant number of Americans remain greatly concerned with privacy, especially regarding drones flying over their homes. As of now, the FAA currently prohibits drone flights in airspace surrounding stadiums, sports arenas, and airports. Restricted airspace over military and other government installations further restrain a drone’s ability to reach the scene of the medical emergency or to deliver supplies in a cost-effective manner. Even flying over private land or homes, a necessity in urban and suburban areas, could face restrictions in the future due to these personal privacy concerns. A 2017 Pew Research poll reported that 54% of Americans currently think drones should not be allowed to fly near homes at all. Without significant foresight in planning, drones could become restricted to a network of limited flight corridors, perhaps mirroring existing road networks. Before we ever reach that point, great care must be taken to ensure that future regulations do not negate a drone’s ability to arrive on scene quickly to provide lifesaving care.
Several key steps must be taken in order to solve these current issues. Anti-counterfeit technologies must be implemented on pharmaceutical products in the U.S. and around the world. Not only will this slow the spread of dangerous medications and counterfeits, it can provide peace of mind to patients, especially in these uncertain times. Additionally, forward-thinking regulatory guidelines must leave drones unfettered so that we all can fully benefit from their incredible capabilities. Finally, public opinion must be swayed to ensure that drones are seen as lifesaving technology rather than as further threats to individual privacy and safety. With endless possibilities and rapidly growing interest, increased drone use can bring about a revolution in healthcare by reducing costs, expanding access and improving quality of care for people all around the world.