Drones hold promise to save lives and improve rural healthcare

Modern Healthcare

Things are looking up: drones could soon start delivering medications in medical deserts in the rural U.S. The Federal Aviation Administration approved 10 pilot programs for drone usage in May, including projects that specialize in medical deliveries in San Diego and North Carolina.

drone-deliveryThe first use of a drone to deliver medication in the U.S. was in Wise County, Va., during the Wise Expedition—one of the largest annual medical outreach events in the country.
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Drones have been successfully used a number of times internationally to improve healthcare. Currently, health workers at remote clinics in Rwanda can order supplies via text messages, and Zipline, a commercial drone company based in California, will air-drop the delivery—sometimes within 15 minutes.

“When we launched in Rwanda we served just one hospital for three months and that was so powerful—doctors loved the service; it was obviously saving lives—we then expanded to two more hospitals and then two more and two more,” Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo told Fast Company. “This is how all technology can and should start. I think it will just be a steady scaling up of impact.”

Drones that have been tested in the U.S. have shown promise for improving the nation’s rural healthcare. July 15, 2015, marked the first time medicine was delivered and received by drone in a rural area, in Wise County, Va., during the Wise Expedition—one of the largest annual medical outreach events in the country.

“There’s so much healthcare disparity here in the mountains,” Dr. Teresa Gardner Tyson, executive director of Health Wagon, which operates a mobile clinic in southwest Virginia, told The Rural Monitor. “So anything that we can put in our armor to address healthcare disparities, any resource that we can bring to the region, it’s all welcomed.” Health Wagon partners with Remote Area Medical, a not-for-profit provider of mobile medical clinics, for the annual Wise Expedition clinic.

After a massive EF4 tornado ripped through Hattiesburg, Miss., in 2013, researchers at William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine began rethinking how to respond to medical emergencies during disasters. The result: the Healthcare Integrated Rescue Operations project, known as HiRo, which uses a modified drone capable of carrying a 20-pound medical kit.

“Embedded inside the kit is a smartphone, which enables a live video chat between the injured party and the physician,” said Dr. Italo Subbarao, an associate dean at Carey who led the team developing the drone.

“I have a background as a paramedic, so we designed this kit around what an ambulance might typically have,” Dr. Guy Paul Cooper, a resident physician at Merit Health Wesley Hospital who works with Subbarao on the project, told WJTV12 in Jackson, Miss.

The possibilities for drones in healthcare are vast. They can help deliver lab tests to diagnose patients faster, distribute contraceptives, help disaster victims with necessities and more. The sky’s the limit.

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