Northwell Health, a New York-based health system, is seeking to use a fleet of emergency drones, in combination with telehealth technology, to respond to accidents more quickly, treat opioid overdoses and even provide medical attention needed due to terrorists attacks. However, there are still a lot of barriers to burst through before Northwell Health can carry out these plans.

Purna Prasad, Ph.D., Chief Technology Officer at Northwell Health, said, “This is actually our next foray into telehealth. There may be places where there is no network connection, or there may be places where people just don’t have the wherewithal to have any of type of mobile phone for two-way video conferencing. Can the drone provide that last mile of connectivity not only for audio, video and data, but also in delivering emergency care?” Prasad envisions a drone equipped with two-way audio and video capabilities and a compartment containing a dose of pain medication for an individual who fell in a remote location and needs pain relief prior to the EMTs arriving, or a defibrillator for someone experiencing cardiac arrest, or even a dose of Narcan for an opioid overdose. All of this could be done at a fraction of the cost of a helicopter and in a more efficient timeframe for more lifesaving potential. Of course, using drones to support emergency care is still a relatively new, untested idea, especially here in the United States. While many health care systems and first responders believe that using drones to transport biological samples, deliver medical supplies or respond to large-scale disasters is on the horizon, drones for telemedicine in emergency situations is less widely discussed. Last year, researchers at William Carey University of Osteopathic Medicine in Mississippi built three drone prototypes exactly for this purpose, but widespread testing of these prototypes or this drone use has been completed at this point. But, following the memorandum signed by President Trump this year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) plans to enter into agreements with state and local agencies to pilot test the use of drones for many different purposes, one of which is for public health, by May 7th. Prasad said that while this is certainly the direction that Northwell Health hopes to go, the “FAA is as nervous as we are” because “this is something that is very new, especially in a place like New York City where you have two international airports.” We will continue to track new use cases like this and how the FAA works with state and local governments to integrate drones into the National Airspace for emergency health care and public health matters.