In Rwanda, using drones instead of ambulances to deliver emergency blood products has resulted in blood arriving for transfusions 79 minutes faster on average. It also reduced the number of wasted blood units by two-thirds.
That’s according to a new study from researchers at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health, who collaborated with colleagues in Rwanda to analyze outcomes from more than 12,000 deliveries over two years. The findings were recently published in The Lancet Global Health.
“Every second counts in an emergency. With the help of these drones, we’re seeing that deliveries of blood products to remote clinics are much quicker. Many facilities are now receiving blood products in a fraction of the time,” said PhD candidate Marie Paul Nisingizwe, the study’s first author.
Prompt blood delivery can be lifesaving for people who need transfusions for emergencies such as postpartum hemorrhage, severe malaria, or traumatic injuries. However, only a few facilities in Rwanda are able to collect and store blood, posing a serious risk for people who don’t live near distribution centers.
In 2016, Rwanda became the first African country to integrate drone deliveries into its healthcare system. The project is a partnership between the Government of Rwanda and California-based robotics company Zipline Inc.
“Every second counts in an emergency. With the help of these drones, we’re seeing that deliveries of blood products to remote clinics are much quicker.”
Marie Paul Nisingizwe
Currently, the program is focused mainly on blood deliveries. However, the project has started to expand the deliveries of vaccines and essential medicines for the treatment of diseases such as HIV/AIDS, COVID-19, malaria, and tuberculosis.
While most studies to this point have focused on feasibility, the new paper from Nisingizwe and her team is one of the first to measure actual outcomes. Next, the researchers want to determine whether drone delivery improves health outcomes and is ultimately cost-effective, and explore its potential for transporting other perishable health products and medicines.
“Drone technology has tremendous potential to improve access to care for people living in rural and remote areas, not just in Rwanda, but all around the world,” said Dr. Michael Law, a professor in UBC’s Centre for Health Services and Policy Research and senior author on the study.
Drone delivery is being explored as a potential healthcare solution in other countries, including in British Columbia, where a UBC-led study is exploring the feasibility of using drones to transport medical supplies between Stellat’en First Nation and the Village of Fraser Lake.