Telehealth delivery appears to be in the midst of a makeover.
Inventors at the University of Cincinnati are developing drone technology that could be used to conduct virtual visits inside people’s homes.
Once fully developed, the drone will be able to navigate indoor spaces and bring two-way communication equipment directly to patients, said Dr. Manish Kumar, one of the inventors and a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Cincinnati, in a phone interview.
“Currently, medical drones… are used to drop off medicines to people’s homes or other places,” Kumar said. “These drones…are only used for outdoor purposes. Our drone is going to do not only that but also go inside people’s homes.”
The drone will have cameras and a display screen so patients can talk to healthcare professionals.
Not only that, but the drone will also be fitted with a medical kit that can be used to deliver medical supplies and devices for self-administered patient exams and tests.
An array of health assessments can be conducted during these drone-enabled telehealth sessions, said Dr. Debi Sampsel, another inventor and director of telehealth at UC’s College of Nursing, in a phone interview. These include taking temperatures or measuring oxygen levels. The kit includes patient-friendly devices, and the clinician will be able to direct patients on how to use them. Patients that require assistance can get help from family or other caregivers during these sessions.
Though telehealth is the key service provided by the new drone technology, it can also be used to conduct food environment assessments, said Dr. Seung-Yeon Lee, an associate professor of nutrition sciences in the UC College of Allied Health Sciences and project collaborator, in a phone interview. The drone would allow clinicians to assess food availability and nutrition needs in a person’s home and then tailor education and counseling to those needs.
But in a world of ubiquitous smartphones and iPads, is there really a need for drone-enabled telehealth?
According to the inventors — which includes Victoria Wangia-Anderson, a professor of health informatics in UC’s College of Allied Health Sciences — the answer is a resounding yes.
Though telehealth use shot up amid the Covid-19 pandemic, it also laid bare a central issue with the shift to digital: the fact that not everyone has easy access to digital devices or the internet.
“The one thing with the drone is that there doesn’t have to be any type of device in the person’s home,” said Sampsel. “It’s all hands-free. The drone will be able to produce that two-way communication.”
“That’s one of the things that’s invaluable when you are looking at the fact that everybody does not have the wherewithal or dexterity to download apps and create that two-way communication with a device,” she added.
And this hand-free capability will not just come in handy when providing care to seniors or others who aren’t very comfortable with technology. The drones can be used to deliver care to military personnel on the battlefield, people injured during natural disasters and the homeless, Kumar said.
“Drones can be sent to any place,” he said. “That will really increase its applicability…in rural as well as urban settings.”
The UC team currently has a working prototype of the drone with some functionalities, but not all the capabilities that inventors say the final version will possess.
In addition, the team is conducting a three-phase research project, led by Lee, to gain insights into the perception and acceptability of such technology among patients as well as how safe it is to fly the device in people’s homes.
The team hopes to have a fully functioning prototype by the end of the year.
But what comes after that is yet to be decided.
The team plans to bring the technology to market but has not yet decided the business model it will use. One model they are considering is a service-based one, where they will partner with companies that can provide healthcare-focused drone services, Kumar said.
The mention of drones may bring up fears that the use of this technology would be cost-prohibitive for hospitals. But that may not be the case, Kumar argues.
The price of the components that make up the drone is not very high, clocking in at about $1,500, Kumar said. And Kumar believes that though it is currently impossible to say what the cost of the fully functioning prototype will be, with mass production, those costs will likely go down as well.
Further, hospitals have to weigh the potential benefits with the cost.
“The question about cost is really a question about benefit turned on its head,” said Dr. Joseph C. Kvedar, chair of the American Telemedicine Association’s board and professor at Harvard Medical School, in an email. “As we move into a world that is dominated by value-based reimbursement, providers are going to have to adopt more consumer-friendly strategies. Thus, if the economics are right, a drone or fleet of drones is not a big expense item for a hospital system.”
An oft-repeated assertion since the pandemic hit has been that telehealth is here to stay. But the way in which it is delivered will continue to evolve as different consumer needs become apparent.
Photo: Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative