Can future rural health care be delivered by drones?

UAH is studying the utilization of drones in telehealth

Dr. Azita Amiri prepares a drone for flight during the demonstration. Photo by Michael Mercier/UAH

Getting health care services and supplies can be a challenge for rural patients. Several programs at the University of Alabama in Huntsville are working to see if drones can help fill some of the gaps.

According to the 2020 U.S. Census, there are 57.2 million people living in rural areas — about 17.3% of the population. And in Alabama, there are a little more than 1.1 million people living in rural areas, or about 23% of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

The UAH College of Nursing and the Rotorcraft Systems Engineering and Simulation Center (RSESC) Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program are exploring how drone delivery could deliver time-sensitive payloads to rural patients at home.

“We have been working on several projects utilizing drones in telehealth,” said Dr. Azita Amiri, an associate professor of nursing at UAH. She has been collaborating on the projects with Casey Calamaio, an RSESC research engineer. They recently tested drone delivery technologies and approaches for nursing education on campus, with an eye to refining the system for use in the rural U.S.

During the simulation, a pregnant woman at risk for preterm labor arrives at a rural hospital with limited supply and staff. Nurses perform a preterm labor assessment and prescribe fetal fibronectin and betamethasone, but neither are available at the rural hospital. Using a drone, an urban clinic sends the medicine and a fetal fibronectin testing kit, which will help predict risk for preterm delivery. Upon receipt at the rural hospital, the supplies are unloaded, the tests performed and then loaded back on the drone for delivery back to the urban clinic.

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“This simulation was designed to promote creative and viable decision-making by nurses,” said Dr. Darlene Showalter, who led the simulation. “We are equipping our students to collaborate and think through real-life issues that serve as obstacles to health care equity.”

Amiri added that the simulation could also be used as a pilot for medical services delivery among the hospital systems in Huntsville.

A local industry partner with expertise in public safety UAS, Skyfire Consulting, provided the aircraft and medical payload to the team for the demonstration. The custom payload bay on the UAS was made of Kydex, a thermoplastic acrylic-polyvinyl chloride material.

“This demonstration provided a simple scenario to test unmanned aerial delivery solutions in a campus environment,” Calamaio said. “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.”

She added that the prototype payload delivery helps pave the way for more rigorous testing with different medicine containers, samples, and in particular, liquids with specific temperature requirements.

“Limitations in healthcare services in disadvantaged communities lead to delay in diagnosis, as well as inconvenient patient and physician experiences,” said Amiri. “We’re trying to connect nursing, aerospace and unmanned aircraft systems and use it in the systems in healthcare to improve nursing care and patient outcome.”

Calamaio added, “Significant coordination with the FAA to safely implement a rural UAS delivery system is required. 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.”

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