Drones as first responders? They work

Remember the story we covered last year about Canadian drone company, Drone Delivery Canada announcing that it had made successful trials to use drone technology as a first responder in urgently flying automated external defibrillators to rural patients in the country?

Well; there has been further research into the concept by a group of doctors, who have since concluded that… well; suffice to say they came to the same conclusions that DDC did a year ago – only that these were independent researchers from the Department of Medicine at the Karolinska Institute’s Centre for Resuscitation Science in Sweden, who recently published their findings in the European Heart Journal.

“In this pilot study, we have shown that AEDs can be carried by drones to real-life cases of Out of Hospital Cardiac Arrest (OHCA) with a successful AED delivery rate of 92 percent,” the researchers concluded. “There was a time benefit as compared to emergency medical services in cases where the drone arrived first. However, further improvements are needed to increase dispatch rate and time benefits.”

Seeing as we are not doctors ourselves, we thought it best to let a real stakeholder in the medical field review the research findings in the below article. Dr Sai Balasubramanian is a physician, speaker, and writer, focusing on the intersections of healthcare, digital innovation, and policy.

His opinions below were taken from Forbes magazine.

A new article published last week in the European Heart Journal discusses the use of drones for delivering life-saving automated external defibrillators (AED) to out-of-hospital cardiac arrest (OHCA) patients.

As the study describes, “Early treatment in line with the ‘chain-of-survival’ concept such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and defibrillation by an automated external defibrillator (AED) prior to ambulance arrival is associated with increased survival. Use of AEDs in the early-cardiac-arrest electrical phase can increase survival rates to up to 50–70 percent. Although hundreds of thousands of AEDs are available in high-income countries, their accessibility and use are still low.”

Thus, the investigators of the study designed a system to deploy drones to real-life suspected OHCA patients in order to determine whether this was a viable solution to the accessibility problem. One key finding that the authors explored was the ability for drones to decrease first-responder times; while emergency medical services and ambulance systems often struggle in maintaining key response times, drones may be able to get to the scene of the emergency more swiftly.

A few other findings are described by the authors: “…this study describes for the first time a full methodology to deploy AED-equipped drones in a real-life setting. We have shown that it is feasible to integrate a complete drone system all the way from the emergency call to the dispatch centre to fly a drone with final AED delivery onsite (…) Drones carrying AEDs could be regarded as a pilot aspect of medical treatment with drones. There are several fields within medicine in which drones could be lifesaving. For example, there are ongoing studies with drones in the field of drowning and delivery of blood and organs.”

Drone Delivery Canada’s drone based first responder solution for rural cardiac arrest cases

Indeed, this is certainly not the only context in which drone technology has been leveraged for key life-saving operations. Earlier this year, I wrote about how drones were being used to deliver Covid-19 vaccines. Specifically, I discussed how Zipline, a drone delivery service, was partnering with the government of Ghana to distribute vaccines across the country. Since then, Zipline has continued to grow its presence and services.

I also recently wrote about how telehealth capabilities are being integrated into drones to provide on-demand healthcare services: University of Cincinnati researchers developed “a semi-autonomous prototype that can be dispatched right to people’s homes. The drones are big enough to carry medicine or medical supplies but small enough to manoeuvre the tight confines of a home using navigational algorithms…” These drones also have “cameras and a display screen so patients can talk to health care professionals from the comfort of their home,” in addition to carrying “a waterproof box the size of a small first-aid kit to deliver medical supplies or collect self-administered lab tests.” The potential applications are revolutionary.

Although not limited to healthcare, larger organisations have also realised the value in drone technology. Wing, a drone and navigation system company that is owned by Alphabet (the parent company of Google), recently announced that it has nearly surpassed 100,000 customer deliveries (with more than “10,000 cups of fresh barista-made coffee” delivered!).  Given Google’s growing commitment to healthcare and its expansive network across the globe, it is only a matter of time before this technology will expand into healthcare services. In fact, national pharmacy chain Walgreens has already been working with Wing on a pilot partnership to “offer quick, convenient delivery of some of our most sought-after health and wellness, food and beverage, and convenience items.” 

Amazon, another market leader, is also quickly ramping up its drone technology with “Prime Air.” According to the site, “Amazon Prime Air is a service that will deliver packages up to five pounds in 30 minutes or less using small drones.” Given Amazon’s rapidly growing presence in the healthcare and pharmacy spaces, it is highly plausible that the company will soon integrate its advanced drone fleet and infrastructure into care delivery.

Without a doubt, the use of drone technology in the realm of healthcare services is a promising venture. However, organisations and regulatory leaders will need to ensure the viability, scalability, and efficiency of this technology, and reconcile these aspects with the most crucial elements of healthcare: patient safety, privacy, and autonomy. If innovators find a way to balance these delicate facets, drones may indeed revolutionise the future of healthcare delivery.

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