Drone deliveries may help people with diabetes in remote regions get access to medications after doctors in Ireland described the first such delivery. Photo courtesy of Wingcopter
Imagine needing insulin to live but a natural disaster suddenly cuts off access to your medication. New drone technology may one day come to the rescue by making urgent deliveries to remote locations, researchers say.
The world's first documented drone delivery of medications to a diabetes patient in a difficult-to-reach community is described in a new paper.
The 16-minute test flight took place last September from Galway, Ireland, to the Aran Islands about 12 miles off Ireland's west coast.
Severe storms have disrupted health care access in Ireland in recent years, and an international team of researchers wanted to find a way to help people with diabetes in remote regions who could be stranded for days after a disaster without access to medications.
The drone project is outlined in an abstract published in a special supplemental issue of the Journal of the Endocrine Society.
"We now have the drone technology and protocols in place to deliver diabetes medications and supplies in an actual disaster if needed," said principal investigator Derek O'Keeffe. He is a consultant endocrinologist at National University of Ireland, Galway.
"This is a milestone in improving patient care," he added in an Endocrine Society news release.
The international medical team's year-long planning for the test flight required approvals from aviation, pharmaceutical and medical officials.
The large self-flying drone flew "beyond visual line of sight" during commercial flight operations in regulated airspace, O'Keeffe said.
A number of challenges had to be overcome in order to transport the medications in the drone, another researcher noted.
"Insulin can be outside the fridge for hours, but it can't be exposed to extreme heat, so we put it in an insulated parcel with temperature monitoring en route," said Dr. Spyridoula Maraka, an endocrinologist at the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System in Little Rock, who was part of the test.
"We also put a security lock on the parcel in case the drone did not arrive at the right place," she explained in the news release.
To comply with prescription drug regulations, Maraka had a pharmacist dispense the insulin and another diabetes medication, glucagon, before placing them in the drone.
The test flight had another important first: The drone returned with a blood sample collected from the patient for monitoring blood sugar (glucose) control.
"We wanted to find a way to monitor glycemic control remotely," Maraka said. "It was the full circle of care, which has not been done by drone before."
Using drones to monitor patients could save lives, the medical team said.
"A patient with type 1 diabetes could develop life-threatening diabetic ketoacidosis after more than one day without insulin," Maraka said. "A blood specimen would allow us to properly diagnose and treat the condition."
The American Diabetes Association has more on diabetes.
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