Health

You’re Dying on the Street. A Drone Might Be Your Only Hope.

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It sounds far-fetched, but one doctor believes aerial drones could prevent fatal overdoses and heart attacks

Drew Costley
Drones are deployed during a demonstration at the Los Angeles Fire Department ahead of DJI’s AirWorks conference in Los Angeles, California, on September 23, 2019. Photo: Robyn Beck/Getty Images

IImagine walking toward a busy intersection and seeing a teenager passed out on the sidewalk, fentanyl patches peeking out of their pocket. You call 911 and tell them you think a kid has overdosed on opioids. The dispatcher says they’ll send an ambulance, but it might take 10 minutes or longer. You don’t know how long the teen’s been out and worry they might die before help arrives.

It’s situations like these that pediatrician Mark Hanna considered while walking to his job as a resident physician at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. Hanna tells OneZero that he saw ambulances “struggling to get past” rush-hour traffic and wondered whether they’d actually reach patients before it was too late.

But then he had a thought: “Are drones even faster than ambulances?”

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According to Hanna’s research comparing the ability of drones and ambulances to reach the scene of a medical emergency, the answer is yes, and his work suggests there’s potential to greatly improve emergency care in crowded cities. At the American Academy of Pediatrics conference in New Orleans on Friday, Hanna will present his findings showing that this pattern held especially true during peak rush hour, when ambulances have many more cars and pedestrians to maneuver through. For his analysis, Hanna compared open-source data on EMS response times within his hospital’s zip code to the time it took to fly drones to the same area.

On average, the drones beat ambulances to the scene by three minutes. It may not seem like much, but it could be the difference between life and death for someone experiencing acute anaphylaxis, cardiac arrest, or opioid overdose.

“I think the number one application in my brain is opiate overdose from fentanyl in adolescents,” Hanna says. “Anybody can walk into a pharmacy right now and buy a prescription, almost over the counter, for Narcan, and if you walk into our hospital, we’ll just give it to you. And this is a medication that’s administered up somebody’s nose. So if we could… get that medication by drone to someone who’s on the phone with 911, then maybe they can reverse the overdose and allow EMS more time to get there.”

What bystanders could do with the medicine once it gets there is a different question, and Hanna knows that more research is needed to answer it. He hopes his research on drone response times amplifies the conversation about the use of drones in delivering emergency medical care and leads to more funding for research—for him and others.

“I think there are very unique circumstances where a drone could be used.”

He’s one of a growing number of public health officials and doctors, including the United Nations Children’s Fund, advocating for the use of drones to respond to emergency medical situations. However, they see drones as supplements to ambulances and emergency medical technicians, not replacements.

Cornelius Thiels, DO, of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, published research on medical transport drones in the Air Medical Journal. He says drones can replace only one function of an ambulance. While they can deliver medical supplies, they can’t transport first responders to the scene or bring patients to hospitals.

“I think there are very unique circumstances where a drone could be used,” Thiels says. “But in the sense of replacing an ambulance, you have to consider that there’s three functions [of an ambulance], and the two most important ones really can’t be replaced by a drone.”

Hanna and Thiels both say more research is needed to figure out how drones can best be used for delivering medicine and what the regulatory role of the Federal Aviation Administration might be.

That hasn’t stopped some people from advocating for the widespread use of medical drones. UPS announced earlier this month that it won a bid to deliver medical supplies from hospital to hospital in the United States, and drones are being used to deliver blood to hospitals in Rwanda, insulin to an island off the coast of Ireland, and ever defibrillators in Sweden.

Jeremy Tucker, DO, is an emergency physician with U.S. Acute Care Solutions in Maryland and runs a blog called Drones in Healthcare, which documents the development of medical drones in the United States. Tucker is so convinced that medical drones are the future that he started Drone Delivery Systems, which has a fleet of commercial delivery drones, some of which have delivered medical supplies.

Tucker is excited about the results of the speed test study. Like Hanna, he thinks about how medical supplies combined with the use of two-way cameras or microphones can help people without medical training administer more advanced medical procedures.

“If you’re rescuing somebody on a mountain or in a forest, and they have more first-aid needs and maybe need a bone splinted before they can be evacuated off the mountain, a bystander might not know how to do that,” Tucker tells OneZero. “But with the use of telemedicine… video or audio instructions by a licensed provider could be given before they are transported.”

That’s the next step in Hanna’s research, though he’s not expecting bystanders to splint a bone just yet. This year, he’s going to recruit “random people with no medical training at all” in Brooklyn and time their ability to administer medical care in a simulated emergencies. He will combine the results from those trials with his drone speed tests to see whether bystanders can become first responders while drones supplement ambulances.

“If we could suggest then that drones are non-inferior in speed to EMS, and the person on the end of the phone is non-inferior in administering these very basic interventions,” Hanna says, “then maybe [we could] try this for real and put Narcan and epinephrine and a defibrillator on a drone and just see if we can save a life.”

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