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Drone telemedicine can foster health care access

OCTOBER 23, 2018
Clinical Congress Daily Highlights, Tuesday First Edition


Delivering telemedicine and digital health by drone offers a promising strategy to bridge access to medical care in marginalized communities of rural Mexico, a study presented Tuesday finds. The study tested experimental drone-mounted telemedicine platforms that relay accurate health data to doctors miles away, enabling them to diagnose and treat patients at a distance.

Sharon Wulfovich, Digital Health Fellow, Stanford University, CA, described the pilot study, which deployed drone telemedicine units equipped with advanced digital health systems to monitor a patient’s biometrics — including heart rate, oxygen saturation, and blood pressure — in real time.

“Currently, health services and medical resources in underserved communities are limited to motor transportation and in-person interactions. However, drones have the ability to take distance and transportation out of the equation,” she said.

Starting in March 2017, a total of 104 flights with five different drones were conducted. The average flight time was 20 minutes  (min: 11 min, max: 34 min) and the average distance traveled was 6.5 miles (min: 2.6 miles, max 17 miles). The mean ground speed was 37 mph at an average altitude of 4,500 feet above sea level (FASL) (min: 98 FASL; max: 9,000 FASL), and average wind speed was 12 mph.

Ms. Wulfovich noted that geographical and technical challenges limited drone performance, sometimes leading to damaged or crashed drones. She also mentioned that the digital health devices differed varied in accuracy. Nevertheless, the results suggest that drone telemedicine could be useful in rural areas with limited access to health care providers, and for patients who can’t afford to travel to hospitals.

The drones used in the trials cannot deliver medical supplies or transport patient samples but there is potential to add these features, Ms. Wulfovich said.

“Although there are still a lot of challenges to be addressed,” she said, “drones have the potential to make medical services readily available in marginalized communities all over the world.”

View this study’s abstract online here.

Additional Information:

The Scientific Forum, Scaling Access to Care in Rural Mexico via Digital Health, Telemedicine and Drone, was held October 23, at the 2018 Clinical Congress of the American College of Surgeons in Boston, CA. Program, webcast and audio information is available at facs.org/clincon2018.


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