Ambulance DroneAmazon has announced that it has plans to deliver goods by drone, to speed up the delivery time. In future, we could buy books and have them delivered within a few hours. Many commentators are also suggesting that the time has come for us to consider how drones can help us to deliver high quality healthcare.

A new form of air ambulance

Just as Amazon wants drones to speed up delivery times, there is a place for speeding up delivery of healthcare. There are times when an ambulance cannot get through the traffic, or when equipment and supportive real-time instructions delivered quickly would be as good as a paramedic half an hour later. At those times, a drone may be helpful. Alec Momont, a graduate student at the Delft University of Technology, has developed an ‘ambulance drone’. This is essentially a flying first aid box, with a communication channel. And because it doesn’t have to worry about traffic, it can travel 7.5 miles in less than a minute.

In busy urban areas, where an ambulance can sometimes struggle to travel one mile in 7.5 minutes, this has huge potential to get life-saving equipment to the scene of a crisis. Obviously, it’s not going to be usable everywhere. However, if, for example, someone has had a cardiac arrest, a bystander or first aider guided by operators through the remote communication channel could apply a defibrillator carried by the drone. It’s easily seen as an extension of the policy that placed defibrillators in public places across the UK. At just over £11,000 per drone, they’re not cheap, but could save lives by speeding up response times. Momont believes that his drone is at least five years away from commercial reality, but he is seeking funding, and hopes to continue its development.

A practical form of matter transport

Less dramatic, but perhaps more likely to be delivered fairly quickly, is what we might call the ‘Amazon pharmacy’. For people who are house-bound, and need medication, there is currently a difficulty. Clinicians can be consulted remotely, prescriptions can be emailed to the pharmacy, but nobody has yet come up with an instant matter transport system that can email medication. A drone could deliver the medicines to the patient’s house, quickly and (relatively) cheaply.

There is similar potential for medicines from a hospital pharmacy to be delivered to the ward by drone, potentially speeding up healthcare by cutting out a human step in the chain. That said, as anyone who has ever waited for a takeaway delivery on a Friday night will attest, demand may outstrip available drone delivery time during busy periods, and the number of drones required to meet demand may be prohibitively expensive.

Drones also have potential to deliver healthcare supplies, mobile equipment and communications infrastructure to disaster-struck areas quickly, not least because they don’t need open spaces to land. Indeed, a start-up called Matternet has already started trials on drones to provide just such support. While drones will not help if the issue is lack of trained staff on the ground, they could be used to provide suitable delivery systems for medicines and vaccines against diseases like cholera.

The perils of distance

But there is a downside to the use of technology. For example, one doctor, Roy Smythe, who is  medical director of AVIA, warns against the perils of allowing technology to distance clinicians from their patients. He points out that healthcare needs, and specifically therapeutic needs, cannot always be met by technology alone. Dr Rushika Fernandapaulle, who is founder and CEO of IoraHealth, supports this. IoraHealth is focused on putting relationships back at the heart of healthcare, because of a belief that it is relationships that heal, not technology.

Technology has the potential to bring clinicians much closer to their patients. Remote consultations allow clinicians to be in contact with many more patients, and at shorter notice. Commentators have suggested that it could lead to genuinely patient-centred and individualised care. It may be the only way that we can deliver care to increased numbers of people in financially-constrained circumstances. But we must be careful to make sure that it is not just a way to reduce costs by reducing contact with patients who need attention.

The housebound patient may derive more benefit from a chat with the delivery driver than the medicine he or she brings. Sending medicine by drone could therefore have unforeseen consequences. Use of drones should be weighed carefully.

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