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Alabama Project Tests Drones for Rural Healthcare Delivery

Analysis  |  By Eric Wicklund  
   February 23, 2022

The University of Alabama at Huntsville is studying how drones can be used to ferry medications and other medical supplies to rural healthcare sites and facilitate critical tests.

Researchers at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) say a recent simulation test has proven the value of drones in delivering critical medications and other supplies to rural residents.

The UAH team, comprised of members from the College of Nursing and the UAH Rotorcraft Systems Engineering and Simulation Center (RSESC) Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program, created a scenario in which a rural hospital receives a pregnant woman at risk for preterm labor. Nurses at the hospital perform a focused preterm labor assessment and receive a prescription for fetal fibronectine (fFN) and betamethasone – but neither are available at the hospital or anyplace nearby.

This is where a drone comes in handy. An urban clinic or hospital uses the drone to send the medicine and an fFN testing kit (fFN is a protein produced during pregnancy that’s used to predict risk for preterm delivery and betamethasone is vital for maturing fetal lungs in the event of preterm birth) to the hospital. The nurses use that kit to perform a test, then send the results back to the urban location via the drone.

“This simulation was designed to promote creative and viable decision-making by nurses,” Darlene Showalter, RN, CNS, a clinical associate professor and DNP program coordinator at UAH who led the simulation, said in a UAH press release. “We are equipping our students to collaborate and think through real-life issues that serve as obstacles to healthcare equity.”

The project is the latest of several conducted by UAH that focuses on using drones for healthcare services, and one of several healthcare organizations around the country that are testing or using drones in both urban and rural areas. Utah-based Intermountain Healthcare recently launched a program to deliver prescriptions and other medical supplies in and around Salt Lake City; others testing the idea include WakeMed Health & Hospitals in North Carolina, Kaiser Permanente (which is using drones to deliver prescriptions to a retirement community in Florida) and the Rady Children’s Institute for Genomic Medicine in San Diego.

At UAH, Azita Amiri, PhD, MSN, RN, an associate professor of nursing at UAH who has been leading the research program with RSESC research engineer Casey Calamaio for about two years, says the latest simulation is a step toward using drones throughout healthcare.

“This simulation model can also be used as a pilot for medical services delivery in our hospital systems in Huntsville,” she said in the press release. “Our team is now working on a simulation where we have a case of an overdose in a rural area, and a drone is used to deliver the life-saving medication naloxone to reverse the effects of opioids.”

“This demonstration provided a simple scenario to test unmanned aerial delivery solutions in a campus environment,” Calamaio added. “We also had a chance to identify areas with radio frequency interference in urban environments, considerations for UAS traffic management, and to discuss effective ways to introduce UAS in the local medical community.”

While drone services are closely regulated by the Federal Aviation Authority and currently restricted to package delivery, healthcare organizations are working with the federal agency to develop and launch pilots and programs.

“Significant coordination with the FAA to safely implement a rural UAS delivery system is required,” Calamaio said. “Challenges in assured operational safety and regulatory compliance need addressing before UAS are used as delivery mechanisms on the scale to tilt the medical supply chain in a significant way.”

Eric Wicklund is the Innovation and Technology Editor for HealthLeaders.

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