Can drones improve healthcare in remote regions?

While mobile health efforts are helping to boost care quality in rural and underdeveloped nations worldwide, hurdles remain for providers in such areas when it comes to access to supplies.

To that end, the World Health Organization and the government of Bhutan, a small South Asian nation in the Himalayas, are teaming up with a California technology startup to examine a new method for improving patient care efforts: Drones.

The technology, according to an article in Quartz, will connect three rural clinics with the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital in Bhutan's capital city of Thimphu. Each of four drones will be tasked with carrying roughly 4 pounds of supplies, such as medicines and blood samples, back and forth between specified landing stations.

Overall, the nation has 31 hospitals, 178 "basic health" units and 654 outreach clinics, according to the article.

At least one analyst--Phil Finnegan of the Teal Group, which examines the aerospace industry--calls the outlook for such efforts promising on several different fronts.

"Essentially, we see a market of civil government and commercial in terms of $5.4 billion over the next decade," Finnegan told Quartz.

The pilot, according to Kuensel Online, the daily news site of Bhutan, kicked off this past Monday when two drones were launched from the capital city hospital.

In a Hospital Impact post from last December, Jeremy Tucker, chair of the emergency department and physician champion patient safety at MedStar St. Mary's Hospital in Leonardtown, Maryland, called the idea of drone use in healthcare "intriguing."

"Drones could deliver medications and supplies to patients being cared for in the home instead of a hospital-based setting," Tucker said. "The future will see more outpatient care and even home-based care that used to be delivered in the hospital. For many conditions, drone technology may make it easier and safer to provide this home-based care."

Tucker added that he could foresee drone use streamlining the use of tools like automated external defibrillators for ventricular fibrillation.

"No longer would a person have [to] obtain AEDs from a specific location that may be a challenge to find in a rapid fashion," he said. "Simply summon the AED with the push of a button or smartphone app."

To learn more:
- here's the Quartz article
- read the Kuensel Online post