Introducing the telehealth drone

Scientists in the USA are building a drone that will make house calls – just like a real doctor.

Yes. You heard it right.

We have had drones that deliver medicines. Drones that urgently bring defibrillators to cardiac arrest situations.

Why not one that does that will fly right inside your home and practically take you through a medical procedure?

“We are building a telehealth drone that will have the ability to go inside people’s homes,” said Manish Kumar, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at University of Cincinnati.

Kumar – who is working on this project with other inventors at the University of Cincinnati – Victoria Wangia-Anderson, Debi Sampsel and Seung-Yeon Lee says the team is developing a semi-autonomous prototype that will be big enough to carry a small payload of medicine or medical supplies but small enough to manoeuvre its way around the tight confines of a home using navigational algorithms developed by UC engineers.

“That’s very, very challenging from technology point of view, because once you go inside people’s homes, you lose connection with the GPS,” Kumar said.

“Most drones rely on controllers that work on radio communication and require line-of-sight for safe, remote operation. That’s why most drones have limited operational range. If you want beyond line-of-sight control, you need some autonomous capabilities.”

Professor Manish Kumar. Picture: Joseph Fuqua/UC Creative + Brand

The engineers are designing and testing special sensors that would allow the drone to navigate past a cluttered and complex three-dimensional environment; like the front door of a home – into a patient’s living room carrying a tablet or smart phone. Patients would then connect with a doctor for a telehealth appointment – and access a special medical kit attached to the drone so they can measure and transmit health information.

They have also been experimenting with sensors and other technology in a “smart house” to develop aids for older or disabled residents, in partnership with a local retirement campus, which provides a nursing home, independent and assisted living, as well as rehabilitative care.

“We’ll be able to get a read on their heart rate. We’ll be able to know what their oxygen level is in their body,” explained Debi Sampsel, Director Telehealth at the UC College of Nursing.

Sampsel and fellow UC professor Tamilyn Bakas have been exploring on ways in which telehealth robots could help people living independently for the past seven years – and the logistics and communications needed to perform these tasks remotely got her thinking about ways telehealth delivery could be improved to reduce health care disparities regardless of where people live.

She then secured a grant to develop a prototype to test the feasibility of dispatching a telehealth care delivery drone to a patient’s home to provide health assessments or medical interventions.

Hence her involvement with this telehealth drone project.

Debi Sampsel. Picture: Joseph Fuqua/UC Creative + Brand

“A big advantage of drones is their ability to navigate using satellite or even cellular communications,” Kumar said.

Lee, the other team member on this project, said the telehealth drone can be flown into rural areas where in-person nutrition education or counselling services and high-speed internet are not readily available.

“We can use the drone to assess both availability and accessibility of foods at home as well as kitchen tools and appliances. Based on this assessment, we can tailor nutrition education and counselling,” Lee said.

“It can be used to promote healthy eating as a primary prevention or to help people with diet-related chronic disease management, such as diabetes, as a tertiary prevention.”

Lee is an associate professor of nutrition sciences in the UC College of Allied Health Sciences.

Her colleague at the same college, Victoria Wangia-Anderson, a professor of health informatics is interested in mitigating health disparities; where telehealth drones can be used for public health applications such as delivering essential medical materials like medication or test kits, or surveying public health conditions in neighbourhoods to identify effective interventions.

“They also can be used to assess living conditions or to provide a substitute for in-person care during a pandemic or epidemic outbreak. The data they provide can be useful for interventions, clinical care, population health and other decision-making,” Wangia-Anderson said.

“Patients with limited access to transportation may benefit from telehealth sessions and delivery, aiding in reducing health disparities.”

The report from UC added that health healthcare access was scarcer in rural USA, with medical services removed from where the people live. Only eleven percent of doctors serve rural populations, the report said.

In continents like Africa, issues of inadequate healthcare to rural communities have been well documented; the majority of the one billion people with limited access to healthcare in the world today live in rural Africa, where they struggle to access the basic care needed to prevent premature deaths from preventable diseases such as malaria, pneumonia, or complications from childbirth.

But some countries are taking active steps to bridge this gap, with medical drones now a common sight in rural parts of Botswana, the DRC, Ghana, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria and Rwanda. The game-changing operations of medical drone logistics companies like Zipline, Wingcopter, Swoop Aero AerialMetric and Avy in these countries has brought them closer to their health service delivery goals, with timely deliveries of emergency medicines and other medical products.

The addition of a telehealth drone with all the accessories of a house call doctor could be a welcome revolution for these rural populations.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic began, we saw a need for telehealth care delivery drones to provide health care in the home and in locations where access to care is not readily available,” Sampsel said.

“We can perform all kinds of functions: chronic disease management, post-operative care monitoring, health coaching and consultations. And in the health care arena, there is no age limit. Telehealth services are useful from birth to death.

“When COVID-19 hit, telehealth emerged as a prime way to talk with healthcare professionals and receive certain types of therapies. Telehealth is here to stay.”

Researchers say the prototype is ready and tested for use in people’s homes.

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