Jabulile Nhlapo: What if we can… Make Medicine Mobile?

Mechanical Engineer(Associate), WSP, Building Services, Africa

Speed is of the essence in modern medicine.  In cities, we hear sirens on our streets day and night as sick and injured people are hurried to hospitals.  Emergencies close to major hospitals can be managed quite quickly, but urgent cases in remote areas fare less well.  This is particularly true of rural communities in less developed parts of the world.

What if we can make medicine mobile?  What if we could send medical equipment, medication, and critical supplies such as blood, directly to the scene of an emergency, instead of transporting the patient? What if weak patients with chronic conditions could be treated at the first point of access or in their rural homes instead of in cities miles away from friends and family?

New services in Africa, using drones for medical product deliveries could provide a model.  In Rwanda, the Silicon Valley robotics company Zipline has partnered with the country’s health ministry to run a drone delivery service that transports supplies such as blood and vaccines to remote clinics.  This service operates ‘on demand’ and products are ordered by text.

At a central distribution centre, Zipline packages items for flight, and within minutes of placing their order health workers receive confirmation that their supplies have been launched and will be flown directly to them at speeds of more than 100 km/h.  Delivery is by parachute, arrival notified by text message.

Transporting blood in this way is particularly effective.  It means that remote healthcare centres and clinics can store less blood, which is far less wasteful because blood can only be kept for a very limited amount of time before it becomes unusable. Delivering blood directly to remote villages is known to help reduce maternal deaths related to blood loss during childbirth.  Other benefits of distributing fresh blood regularly to remote communities include local treatment of malaria-induced anaemia, which is common in children.

With billions of people around the world lacking adequate access to essential medical products due to challenging terrain and gaps in infrastructure, it is easy to see how drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles – or UAVs – can play an important role in making medicine mobile.  Deliveries can cross rivers and lakes and fly over mountainous areas.

But there are limitations.  Such services are currently only viable in regions where there is very little air traffic.  In situations where skies are busy, and airspace is strictly regulated, it is more challenging to use UAVs in this way. Could we overcome these hurdles?  It may be possible.  Although the regulatory barriers are not to be underestimated, most UAVs fly at a lower level than current modes of air traffic which opens up a window of opportunity.

At WSP, we believe it is only a matter of time before technologies such as the use of UAVs become part of standard medical practice all around the world.  In cities, UAVs could overfly traffic jams to transport products far more quickly than emergency vehicles.  In natural disasters, such as earthquake or flood, UAVs could overfly impassable roads.

Amongst the keys to making this happen, is the need to rethink the buildings services and digital infrastructure that we design into hospitals, clinics, and related service centres such as ambulance stations to ensure they are future-ready to manage UAV traffic.

Landing pads for UAVs may need to be part of future hospital design, together with recharging facilities to enable longer distances to be flown.  For energy efficiency, photo-voltaic (PV) panels on buildings could harness solar power for UAV recharging in some locations.

exterior view- middleburg district hospital

Middelburg Distric Hospital, South Africa

Digital integration of hospitals services could permit more sophisticated digital tracking of UAVs so that take-off and landing times for multiple deliveries could be scheduled, in much the same way that an airport schedules flights.

With such infrastructure in place, UAVs could also be used for non-emergency transport of items such as samples for laboratory testing.  This would take traffic off the roads and could constitute a cost-effective and flexible service in the long run, after initial set-up costs had been absorbed. This type of digital infrastructure, interweaved with the Internet of Things, could open up a wide raft of opportunities for mobile medicine.

These are possibilities that can become realities because the technologies are already within our grasp.  Integrating UAVs into our digital and physical medical infrastructure demands a new way of thinking, and an imaginative approach, but it can be done.

And let’s not forget the forward strides already made in Africa, nor neglect the opportunity to nurture the fledgling services that are carrying urgently-needed medicine so swiftly to so many people.

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