A look into the future

yellow drone

Will drones soon be dropping medication to our doors? Robert Read looks at a development that may revolutionise pharmacy 

We’re already starting to see some exceptional examples of innovation come out of the COVID-19 epidemic, none more so than in the digital health sector.

Terra Drone and Antwork have teamed together to transport medical samples and quarantine materials in China. Zipline, a US tech company, has engineered autonomous drones that travel hundreds of kilometers to deliver vital medical supplies to rural health centres in Rwanda and Ghana, and the UK government has backed a trial for drones to deliver medical supplies amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Digital health has seen strong growth both domestically and globally, garnering healthy projections even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. According to Grand View Research, the global digital health market size is expected to reach $US509.2 billion by 2025.

According to the Australian Trade and Investment Commission, 62% of Aussies are using technology to better manage their health. 91% believe technology can help them better manage their health and Australia’s digital health market, valued at US$1.59bn in 2018, is expected to grow to US$1.85bn in 2020.

The Government announced a $5bn, 10-year investment plan for the Medical Research Future Fund as part of its 2019–20 Budget to keep Australia at the forefront of medical research and innovation.

There are other strong local initiatives, such as ANDHealth, an accelerator which aims to develop a more effective ecosystem to support Australian digital health companies. 

All this points towards the likelihood that the healthcare industry, from how we see doctors, to how we receive medication, will be completely revolutionised.

COVID-19 innovation 

Globally, the coronavirus pandemic has led to impressive ingenuity in health tech. Take for example the transportation of medication and PPE using unmanned vehicles.

Antwork and Terra Drone transported medical samples and quarantine materials via a medical delivery drone from the People’s Hospital of Xinchang County in China to the disease control center of Xinchang County, marking the launch of the first “urban air transportation channel” to help to fight the coronavirus. 

According to the World Health Organisation, more than two billion people lack adequate access to vital medical supplies. That’s almost one third of the world’s population.

Zipline’s use of drones to deliver medical supplies in Africa has seen it deliver blood and other life-saving medical supplies to community hospitals that are cut off from the medical access found in major cities. Doctors and health facilities use an app to order donated blood, vaccines, and PPE that can be delivered in a matter of minutes.

The company started delivering vital COVID-19 tests and samples to test facilities in Ghana as cases began to rise. Zipline is aiming to bring its system to the U.S. to help alleviate some of the strain on hospitals but the initiative needs FAA approval. In the UK, government-based trials have begun for drones to deliver medical supplies amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

It’s not just unmanned aerial vehicles that are helping in the crisis. Nuro, the autonomous vehicle startup founded by two ex-Google employees, is using delivery robots to help health care workers fighting COVID-19. The self-driving delivery company is operating at two field hospitals in California. The coronavirus pandemic has forced many self-driving car companies in California to temporarily shut down their operations, but Nuro saw an opportunity to deliver goods for health care workers using its R2 prototype vehicles.  

Future of pharmacies 

The most notable use cases for the delivery of medical supplies via drones and driverless vehicles have so far been either supplying remote regions of the developing world or specific hospital sites in China and the U.S. There is potential, however, for this to become commonplace and expand to home delivery.

Home delivery of medication could have a string of benefits. One of the most notable, particularly during the current climate, is that it’s entirely contactless and doesn’t require human-to-human contact. In November last year, pre coronavirus, UPS Flight Forward Inc. partnered with CVS Pharmacy to successfully complete two drone-driven prescription medication deliveries.

Shoebox-sized parcels were delivered to a private home in Cary in North Carolina and then to a nearby retirement community.

Poor medication adherence is widely recognised as one of the most common and costly preventable costs for health systems and populations throughout the world.

Automating and digitising the process of receiving medication, and lessening the friction associated with visiting your GP, then having to travel to your pharmacy to collect your medication, could make for a much better user experience and lend itself to the unmanned delivery of prescription medication being fast-tracked.

There are already services like MedAdvisor in Australia, which automate and simplify the process of managing prescription medication use. Adding automated, unmanned delivery could be the next piece in the jigsaw. 

Investment in digital health is strong in Australia and around the world and COVID-19 has accelerated healthcare innovation. The future of pharmacies is now at the hands of innovators. These ideas might seem futuristic, but they could come sooner than we think.

Robert Read is CEO of MedAdvisor

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