Can EMS care be delivered by drone?

Could Amazon’s futuristic delivery device carry AEDs, naloxone, and epinephrine injectors to medical emergencies?

Updated June 10, 2015

Fifty years ago defibrillation was a skill reserved for highly trained physicians, in the controlled environment of an intensive care room or a surgical suite. In the late 1960s, the Columbus Division of Fire’s Heartmobile, among other pioneering programs, took advanced cardiac life support out of the hospital and into the community, delivered by a new cadre of allied health professionals: paramedics.

Continuous technological improvements have advanced defibrillation from a rarely applied intervention by specialists to an easily applied intervention by laypeople. Automatic external defibrillators are ubiquitous in public places like schools, airports and businesses. Unfortunately, many cardiac arrests happen in homes and businesses where an AED is not present. The AED doesn’t arrive until police, fire or EMS responders arrive.

On December 1, 2013 Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos released a video of a small, pilotless drone being used to deliver a package within 30 minutes of ordering. While technically feasible, this service isn’t yet available for Amazon shoppers. On the other hand, this technology could be used to dispatch a drone carrying AED to a 911 caller. Google has obtained a patent for a fleet of EMS drones

I am sure 40 years ago the idea of firefighters providing ACLS care was quickly dismissed as futuristic optimism. It is now the expectation of every community that firefighters, police officers, and medical first responders — as well as teachers, clergy, and mall security guards — be able to apply AED pads and deliver a shock. If a community is serious about increasing cardiac arrest survival, all options should be explored, including drones.

The delivery of medications for other time-critical interventions could be enhanced with drone delivery. Auto-injectors can be administered by lay people for patients experiencing a seizure, narcotics overdose, or anaphylaxis. columnist Dan White previously explored the use of “Drones as an Eye in the Sky for EMS.” In addition to Dan’s ideas, a drone with the capability to provide live streaming video could be used for:

  • Patient assessment when a patient is in remote or austere conditions that is not easily accessible to EMS professionals
  • 360-degree size-up of mass casualty incidents, hazmat incidents, multiple vehicle collisions, or structure fires
  • Monitoring participants at a mass participation event, like a road race or parade

How would you use a drone to improve patient assessment and care?

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