July 1, 2022

by Jonathan Stell

Fighting Diseases Through the Air

Drones have been an instrumental tool in the fight against COVID-19, delivering millions of vaccines and other medical supplies worldwide, but they can be used for so much more. All around the world drones are being used to reach people groups that would otherwise not have access to healthcare they desperately need. In Malawi, medical supplies are being carried to nearly 20 million people across the nation. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, drones are being used to reach people in remote locations to fight against Ebola and other infectious diseases. Within the South Pacific, drones are being used to fly between 83 islands to reduce waste of medical supplies and ensure that every child can get the vaccines they need.

The Potential of Drone Delivery in Healthcare

Drone delivery of medical supplies has unique advantages that have fostered use in more remote locations. First, drones do not rely on construction of infrastructure, such as roads, railways, or airports. Drones have the distinct advantage of being able to fly over terrain, and therefore drones are already in use by communities that are hard to reach. This allows for efficient delivery and is vital for patients who need their medication as soon as possible. Additionally, drones not only conserve energy but can use alternative energy sources, as they are electric drones that do not require fuel to operate like a normal van or truck would.

Drone delivery in healthcare is not without risks.
In countries like the United States where more developed infrastructure is in place, is there value in adding drones as another mode of delivery within the medical arena? One benefit could be the use of drones between healthcare facilities. This could enhance patient access to more advanced healthcare interventions or medications not available in every location. Being able to transfer medical supplies, biological specimens, and medications between hospitals would bridge the gap of care between rural and urban healthcare facilities.

The Risks of Drone Delivery of Medications and Healthcare Supplies

Drone delivery in healthcare is not without risks. One major concern with drones is the possibility of malfunction or tampering. Either of these could cause the drone to be damaged or destroyed. Drone crashes could potentially cause damage to the surrounding area and, in the worst-case scenario, could lead to injury to pedestrians. If a drone is tampered with or the contents of the drone are stolen, the intended patient would not have received the necessary medication, some of which could be life-sustaining. Another concern is that some medications, supplies, and specimens may have specific handling requirements, such as refrigeration or freezing. This cold chain would need to be reliably maintained throughout transport. Another major legal issue with a drone malfunction is the breach of HIPAA. If the contents of a drone contained identifiable information related to their health, like a prescription bottle, patient privacy would be breached if this fell into the wrong hands. Appropriate technologies would need to be in place to ensure that the chain of custody for each medication was maintained and documented well.

Lastly, access to proper education and care from qualified healthcare professionals, must still be maintained. For example, medication counseling from a pharmacist would need to be readily available for prescription delivery, likely through telehealth services. Considering these realities, the cost of one drone malfunction goes well beyond the price of the drone itself; it includes the health impact it may have on a patient, the cost of the medication or supplies themselves, the potential legal costs incurred from a breach of HIPAA, and the damage to person and property.

The Future of Drone Technology in Pharmacy

The impact of drones has only just started, particularly in terms of healthcare applications. In the emergency caused by COVID-19 drones were used across the globe. Zipline, a leading drone operator, has transported 650,000 vaccines in North Carolina alone. Considering this recent success, the future of drone delivery in health care seems bright. There are many roadblocks ahead of companies like Zipline and Swoop Aero, but as technology advances and reliability increases the use of drones in even urban areas is not out of the picture.

Will you be receiving medications on your doorstep from a drone? Only time will tell.


Jonathan Stell is a student at Cedarville University, currently pursuing his Bachelor of Science in Pharmaceutical Sciences degree. His current interests are research and patient care in the clinical setting.

The Cedarville University School of Pharmacy is equipping its Doctor of Pharmacy students to be on the leading edge of healthcare innovation. Cedarville’s Pharm.D. students are fully prepared to begin a rewarding career as a pharmacist and to use their calling to make a difference for Christ as they serve with excellence and compassion.

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