Using drone deliveries to enhance health care in rural, remote and Indigenous communities
This story is part of the Forward happens here series.
A UBC partnership that uses drones to deliver medical supplies could make health care more accessible to isolated communities across Canada
Imagine you’re in a life-threatening car accident in a rural community. You need blood, but the community has none. It’s cut off from additional medical help by a mountain range, forest or body of water.
“For generations, we’ve had a medical system where we tend to move patients to resources, as opposed to resources to patients,” says Dr. John Pawlovich, a family doctor who is the Rural Doctors’ UBC Chair on Rural Health. If you need blood, you have to travel to a larger community. “It’s the same problem around rural Canada and around the world—resources that patients need are either in short supply or they don’t exist in rural, remote or Indigenous communities.”
That’s why Dr. Pawlovich and his team at the University of British Columbia see such potential for drone technology in health care. They’re working closely with the Stellat’en First Nation and the Village of Fraser Lake, located west of Prince George in northern BC, to test drones as a means of delivering medical supplies to isolated communities.
Complementing health care on the ground
The year-long pilot project is one of the first of its kind, and its impact could be huge. It’s currently focused on logistics, with the drones flying a short, simple route. The goal is to learn how drone technology can be used as a tool by communities and health-care providers working together, what cargo can be delivered, and how the drones stand up to the elements year-round.
The cargo being tested by Dr. Pawlovich’s team includes medical supplies such as personal protective equipment and laboratory swabs. In the future, the drones could carry everything from pharmaceuticals and traditional medicines to laboratory equipment. One day, they could even deliver blood products.
“We’re learning how to use drones in the best, safest, most efficient, high-impact way,” explains Dr. Pawlovich. “We want to do it in a really thoughtful way that complements on-the-ground and virtual health-care providers, and empowers and strengthens communities.”
The project was announced in January 2021, during the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Pawlovich explains that the pandemic amplified the isolation of remote communities, as many were forced to lock down and restrict movement in or out. While some communities could get COVID tests, they couldn’t receive timely diagnoses because they had to deliver swabs to labs in larger communities for analysis.
Chief Robert Michell of the Stellat’en First Nation believes the pilot project’s potential will have an important impact. “Based on the isolated location of our community and the needs of our residents, drone transport may enhance our access to COVID-19 testing and medication without travelling and endangering other members of our community,” he says.
Working toward more accessible rural health care
The project’s impact will extend far beyond the pandemic. “Residents of rural, remote and Indigenous communities face much greater health-care disparities than other residents of BC,” says Dr. Pawlovich. Life expectancy is lower, with reduced access to family doctors, specialty care, laboratory investigations and imaging. “These inequities predate COVID-19. They’ve been amplified during the pandemic and continue to exist,” he says. “We’re looking at how technology can start to shrink and close that inequity gap.”
He notes that health-care providers who go into rural, remote and Indigenous communities face a daunting task. They often work in isolation, trying to be many things to many people. This can be overwhelming and is a historical barrier to recruitment and retention.
“Technology allows for the creation of a virtual team that can wrap itself around health-care providers,” he says. “If a young clinician who is fresh out of their training feels confident to go to a rural community knowing that they are well supported, that will lessen the barrier for health-care professionals to go to remote communities.”
How genomics is changing health care
UBC’s distributed medical undergraduate program hosts students in Prince George, Kelowna, Victoria and the Fraser region near Vancouver, in addition to Vancouver. This allows students to complete their training in rural and under-served communities throughout BC, where they are more likely to return to practise once their training is complete.
Dr. Samya Vellani just completed her family medicine residency in Prince George through the UBC Faculty of Medicine and plans to continue practising in rural communities. Students Heidi Barkman and Jenna Burke are participating in UBC’s Northern Medical Program, working alongside rural doctors. They’re learning what it’s like to practise medicine in these small communities while receiving support from mentors and instructors.
Improving health care across Canada
Dr. Pawlovich’s team plans to share learnings from the drone pilot project to help other rural, remote and Indigenous communities across Canada introduce their own drone delivery programs.
“This isn’t a one-and-done project,” he says. “It’s kind of a playbook and a scalable model. The vision is for us to continue to learn how to use drones in the most high-impact way. What are the potential applications within the health-care system? Which communities will gain the most from this?”
He says that a huge part of the process is building community partnerships and relationships on the ground, which is key to successfully integrating technology.
Chief Robert Michell agrees. “As a Native community, we’re at the forefront of the technology,” he says. “It would be amazing in 10 years’ time to see where this goes. This is definitely a first step, and we’re proud to be a part of it.”
In the future, bigger drones could fly over mountain ranges, carry more supplies and save lives in remote areas all across Canada. UBC’s research could help speed the journey. Says Dr. Pawlovich, “No community should go without the access to high-quality health care that they deserve.”