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UBC’s Drone Transport Initiative: Signaling the future of medical care for remote communities

Funded by the TD Ready Challenge, as well as gifts from Canfor and LifeLabs, Dr. John Pawlovich is part of a team of collaborators exploring how drone technology can help deliver much-needed medical services.

The small cargo hold is loaded with supplies, and the launch area is cleared. The white drone, powered by four dual propellers, rises swiftly into the air, signaling the future of medical care for remote communities in British Columbia.

This new initiative will see drone technology bridging the gap for rural and isolated communities, where the medical supply chain is unreliable.

For remote locations in BC—especially Indigenous communities—transporting medical supplies, laboratory samples, blood/blood products or pharmaceuticals in time to patients when they need them can be challenging. In the last year, natural disasters have also interrupted medical supply chains, blocking access to physical supplies and services that are essential to health practitioners delivering care in medical emergencies.

Dr. Pawlovich, a clinical professor in UBC’s department of family practice, is part of a large team of collaborators working on the Drone Transport Initiative, funded by the TD Ready Challenge, as well as gifts from Canfor and LifeLabs. A family doctor who has dedicated his career to improving the health of rural, remote and Indigenous communities, he is the Rural Doctors’ UBC Chair in Rural Health.

For Dr. Pawlovich, it is critical to understand how to deploy drone technology most effectively to support the delivery of medical services before the next natural disaster.

“The lesson to be learned is that waiting for disasters to happen in order to embrace the technology is one way to go—or we can start now,” says Dr. Pawlovich. “That’s what we’re interested in—to safely and effectively execute the technology for the betterment of health care, access and delivery for rural and remote Indigenous communities. Eventually, that will spill over into urban communities as well.”

Aside from the logistics of using drones to improve access to health services by enhancing the medical supply chain, the most critical part of UBC’s Drone Transport Initiative is community involvement.

“The project’s main focus is meeting with communities, working with communities, developing, co-creating with communities in ways that prioritize a community voice, a community-led presence to help shape how the technology works and is operationalized. There are logistics on the ground that have to be managed, and communities must be fully engaged in that journey.”

Donor support has been critical in making this initiative a reality.

“The impact [of donations] is literally the project’s lifeblood,” says Dr. Pawlovich. “Whether big or small, cumulatively, the donations are vital to the project’s success, completion, and advancement. The resources gained through UBC Giving Day and the generous donations from other partners are just so important, so special and vital.”

As Dr. Pawlovich explains, drone technology and other virtual tools such as Zoom are not a substitute for on-site health practitioners—but they can support them by delivering medical supplies and calling on the specialist physicians needed for equitable access to high-quality health care in rural and remote communities.

“Virtual Health’s usefulness is extremely limited without people on the ground. While there are technologies on the ground and technologies in the air,” says Dr. Pawlovich, “the trick is to coordinate and create a complementary system instead of a fragmented, disjointed, anonymous system.”

The drone returns from its flight and is guided down to its landing pad, its payload delivered. Impressive as this cutting-edge technology is, it’s still just a tool for health care teams and communities to adapt and adopt to bridge gaps in the timely delivery of patient-centered health care.

“Having drones just go in, unconnected to people on the ground or to other ways of transporting medical supplies, won’t be helpful,” says Dr. Pawlovich. “It needs to be integrated into communities in a coordinated fashion. That’s the key.”

Looking to the future, with additional donor support, UBC’s Drone Transport Initiative could expand beyond a pilot project into a model transportation solution and capacity-building framework—one that is transferrable to more communities for long-term improvements in health equity and access for underserved Canadians.

Learn more about this research

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