Mayo Clinic researchers discuss use of drones in healthcare

Three researchers from Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic's surgery department are discussing the idea of using drones to deliver medical materials to clinics, disaster areas and remote locations.

The drones could overcome the difficulty of getting sensitive materials, such as blood samples, to remote areas that are arduous to reach by car. Drones have successfully delivered materials for aid workers after the Haitian earthquake in 2012 and transported dummy TB test samples in Papua New Guinea for Doctors Without Borders. Transporting perishable materials in areas and times of critical need is often costly and slow, and the use of drones — vetted for safety and efficiency — could improve healthcare organizations' ability to get critical supplies to rural clinics and disaster areas, according to an article the three researchers published in the Air Medical Journal.

The drones would not look like the multi-million dollar units seen for military use. They would likely be small, rotary-wing aircraft, able to carry a 5-pound load for about 20 to 60 miles. They do not necessarily have to land and can fly pre-programmed routes. They would even be less expensive than some medical equipment, costing approximately $10,000, according to Mayo Clinic's website.

However, the field of unmanned air vehicles is still new and needs evaluation and federal regulation before finding application in healthcare. The use of unmanned air vehicles in commerce is currently restricted by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, but the agency is drafting new regulations to allow more commercial applications. The new regulations are expected some time in 2015, which could allow for drones in U.S. airspace.

Researchers also have clinical considerations to address. For example, blood is temperature sensitive, so coolers that drones could carry need to be designed as well. However, Cornelius A. Thiels, DO, one of the researchers who authored the article in Air Medical Journal, does not think it is impossible, and the benefits would be significant.

"Helicopter and even ambulance transport is extremely expensive, whereas the cost of flying a unmanned air vehicle is really low — dollars per trip," Dr. Thiels said in the Mayo Clinic article. "Not only are there no fuel, maintenance or pilot costs, there is also no risk to a flight crew."

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