Pediatrician Mark Hanna, a Resident Physician at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, New York often witnessed ambulances having difficulties bypassing the heavy traffic during rush hour and wondered if any of them ever arrived too late at an emergency. It was these thoughts that led him into thinking whether unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) like drones can render some help. 

Battling the peak hour traffic 

Hanna began by looking into the transportation time during peak hour and realized, indeed, drones arrived faster than ambulances as they do not have to battle against the increased numbers of cars and pedestrians. He presented part of his finding at the American Academy of Pediatrics 2019 National Conference & Exhibition in New Orleans last Friday (25 October). 

According to his research abstract entitled “Utility of Unmanned Aircraft Systems in Inner City Emergent Response During Peak Rush Hour Traffic”, on average, drones will arrive at the scene three minutes earlier than ambulances. While the difference may be minute, it could be a life and death situation for emergencies concerning cardiac arrest, asthma attack, poisoning, drug overdose, and acute allergic reaction.

Hanna relied on open-source data, mainly the emergency medical services (EMS) response time within his hospital’s zip code and compared to the actual amount of time required for a drone to reach the same area. If drones are equipped with two-way communication systems and other life-saving interventions, it is also possible to involve them in prehospital care or telemedicine in the future. 

Assisting emergency services 

Hanna is part of a growing number of medical professionals and public health officials, who advocates the use of drones in medical emergencies. Nevertheless, he feels there is a need for more research in the area; to find out how drones can be a part of emergency medicine while not breaching the regulation set by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). 

“I think the number one application in my brain is opiate overdose from fentanyl in adolescents. Anybody can walk into a pharmacy right now and buy a prescription, almost over the counter, for Narcan, and if you walk into our hospital, we’ll just give it to you. And this is a medication that’s administrated up somebody’s nose. So if we could… get that medication by drone to someone who’s on the phone with 911, then maybe they can reverse the overdose and allow EMS more time to get there” Hanna told OneZero.

What bystanders may do to the medication once it gets to the scene via drone is a different question, thus Hanna feels there is a need for further study. Besides, he believes drones can only be seen as a complementary assistance to ambulances and emergency medical officers and not replacing them totally. After all, drones can only be used under unique circumstances as they are not able to transport patients away from the scene to the hospital.

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Hazel Tang

A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.