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10 October 2019

Autonomous air transport systems in healthcare

Imagine you’re part of a health agency funded by your country’s government. You provide health services to a population spread across a large land area, with services provided by several facilities.

Your Facilities

Your facilities vary in the services they are able to provide; at the top end, you have one full-service hospital (tier 1 facility). You also have three smaller hospitals which offer some services but aren’t full service (tier 2 facilities). And beyond hospitals, you also have eight small clinics, two of which are staffed with both doctors and nurses (tier 3 facilities) and six which are only staffed with nurses (tier 4 facilities).

So in total you’ve got 12 facilities, ranging in service level from tier 1 to tier 4, which are spread across a large landmass serving your patient population.

Dispersed populations means health facilities in regional areas are often siloed and under-resourced compared to facilities in urban areas. This often results in lower health outcomes and higher transport costs, for either the patient or the health provider, when needing to access a higher quality of care.

Your Key Resources

Now, to provide a good level of service to the patients in your geographical area, you need a broad range of resources. For the sake of simplicity, let’s break these into 3 buckets of key resources.

Firstly, you’ll need to provide human capital. That means specialised doctors (i.e. an obstetrician or gynecologist), general practitioners/ doctors (GPs), nurses, and pharmacists etc.

Secondly, you’ll need to provide medical supplies. This would cover everything from pharmaceuticals, vaccines and medical consumables (i.e. bandages, creams, etc.), among other items.

And finally, you’ll need to provide technology. This would include but isn’t limited to diagnostic equipment and specialised services like testing laboratories.

Your challenge

But here’s the challenge: how can you and your team make all the key resources listed above available at all 12 of your facilities? The short answer; you can’t.

And here’s why…

Human capital is expensive and hard to find, particularly in more remote places. And if you’ve got specialised people with specialised skills, it’s most efficient to centralise them in the busiest facilities (tier 1 facilities) where they can see the most people (and where they are willing to live).

Medical supplies can, to an extent, be distributed to the lower tier facilities. But managing inventory across 12 facilities is hard compared to managing inventory across several tier 1 + 2 facilities. This is for a number of reasons:  it’s hard to predict demand, medicine is difficult to store and often requires specific refrigeration, it’s expensive to have courier drivers coming and going, and finally, unused supplies often need to be thrown out (and then replaced again at additional cost).

Technology follows a similar pattern. It doesn’t make sense to have 12 diagnostics labs (1 at each of your facilities). Rather, it makes sense to have the lab at the tier 1 facility and then employ a fleet of drivers with specialised vehicles to pick up samples from the other 11 facilities. But relying on road-based couriers isn’t time-efficient or cost-effective in most cases.

Noticing a pattern? Key resources are often centralised and only available in tier 1 facilities.

So what does this mean?

Two things.

Firstly, it means that the cost of dispersing resources is simply too high and therefore health service providers centralise resources (centralisation) as much as possible. It’s good for the bottom line and eases the burden of limited funding.

And secondly, it often means that health outcomes aren’t as good as they could be if resources were better de-centralised.

The lack of key resources in lower-tier facilities impacts the most isolated and vulnerable people, who become the least served with the worst health outcomes. This is a big problem, for example, with Indigenous communities in rural Australia.

What does the future look like with autonomous drones?

The question becomes, how can we better make resources available whilst also centralising them to maintain low costs?

By using autonomous air transport to connect urban and regional health facilities, resources can be better centralised in an urban facility, while being available for on-demand support across regional facilities, resulting in operational cost savings and the facilitation of better patient health outcomes.

For human capital, the question is partially answered with telehealth, which is a system whereby patients are able to connect with health professionals from other areas or interstate, via video conferencing or specialised technology.

But what about medical supplies and technology?

The solution is on-demand, autonomous, long-range drones.
If a patient at a tier 4 facility connects with a doctor in a tier 1 facility via telehealth and the patient needs a particular medicine (medical supplies), the doctor can order and send it on-demand, using an aircraft. They simply put the product in the drone’s cargo hold, press a button, it takes off and arrives autonomously shortly afterwards at the patient’s destination, ready to be administered.

Similarly, if the doctor wants to run some tests, the nurse at the tier 4 facility can schedule a drone, which will send back either a urine or blood sample to the tier 1 facility. The sample can be tested with the technology available at the tier 1 facility without a courier needing to travel and without the patient needing to make a specific appointment beyond the one they’re already attending.

The drones are fast, available on-demand, cost-efficient and importantly, allow greater centralisation of key resources for overall cost efficiency and better patient health outcomes.

This is part 1; in part 2 we’ll break down some high-level costs relevant to existing supply chains in comparison to a supply chain utilising autonomous drone technology.

About Swoop Aero

Swoop Aero has been working with the Ministry of Health in both Vanuatu and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to deliver medical supplies and medical samples (blood/ urine) inbound and outbound from main health facilities to outer health facilities.

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