April 19, 2015

The Dronation of Blood? Exploring the Role of Drones in Medicine

By Daniel Cabrera

Author: Cornelius Thiels, MD


A recent publication from the Mayo Clinic created a lot of buzz regarding the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), or drones, in medicine. However in reality most of the drones being used or tested in the US are for things like aerial photography, small package delivery, and surveillance! While several corporations have been quick to expand existing applications and test new adaptations, the non-profit medical community hasn’t been as engaged—not one of the 137 granted exemptions on the FAA website even refer to medicine! As a result, the medical community is lagging in the investigation of drones.

Unmanned aerial vehicles don’t represent a replacement to the care provided by existing medical transport methods, rather they present additional opportunities.  The ability to transport providers and patients through the present mix of helicopters, jets and grounded vehicles, staffed by highly trained professionals, provide essential lifesaving skills that are irreplaceable. It’s the responders who are capable of doing everything from assessing patients, establishing access for fluid administration, managing airways, administering lifesaving medications, and performing a range of procedures which are responsible for improving patient care. Technology currently is not a substitute for the intellect and flexibility of skilled providers on-board. The real potential of UAVs involves getting providers the tools they need to provide the highest level of care regardless of environment and location. UAVs can reach locations that are otherwise inaccessible, remote, risky, or costly for humans. With this in mind the healthcare industry needs to engage in some outside-the-box thinking.  For example a drone might deliver:

  • Blood to a hospital that’s running low;
  • Medical supplies to mass casualty scenes (trauma gauze, tourniquets, etc.);
  • Anti-venom or other rarely used or short half-life medications to an rural providers;
  • Plasma, platelets, or cryoprecipitate to a hospital that doesn't stock these products;
  • Lab samples from small hospitals or clinics to regional labs;
  • Prescriptions to home bound patients;
  • Medications to patients on offshore vessels;
  • Organs for transplantation;
  • Defibrillators to patients in cardiac arrest;
  • And potentially even one day deliver telemedicine.

No single person or medical center can translate these ideas into practice alone. Fortunately, Americans have an amazing sense of innovation and entrepreneurialism that’s likely to fill the void.  Some backyard inventor with a drone will make it happen! They will pave the road—or the sky!  But that doesn’t mean medical professionals can sit on their hands.  We need to collaborate with entrepreneurs so that drones can help us better meet the current, and future, needs of our patients.

Disclaimer: I admit there are many of limitations and hurdles that must be overcome before UAVs can be used in the medical field, and that many of the ideas above may not be feasible. However, my goal is to bring the conversation about drones into the healthcare field, and hopefully spur research and innovation into how they can best be used. So despite the optimism we are not ready to launch UAVs from our hospitals rooftop anytime soon—but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be exploring the possibilities!

Opinions expressed above are my own.

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