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A genderqueer person sitting in a hospital gown sitting in an exam room

BY Leo Hynett


Chemo Medication Delivered by NHS Drones

NHS drones are set to deliver chemotherapy medication in an innovative bid to cut delivery times and reduce carbon emissions.

JULY 05  2022


When a medication is urgently needed, the last thing patients or providers want is to be waiting hours for it to arrive. However, in places such as the Isle of Wight, urgent deliveries from mainland locations can take hours. The latest innovative way to speed up drug deliveries to remote locations is through NHS drones, provided by medical startup Apian.

Apian, founded by a team of NHS doctors in training and ex-Googlers, is applying innovative new thinking to the challenges of healthcare logistics. Apian’s upcoming trial will see chemo medication picked up from the pharmacy at Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust and delivered to St Mary’s Hospital (part of the Isle of Wight NHS Trust). Some chemo medications have a short shelf life so, when it comes to delivery, time is of the essence.

If the trial proves successful, NHS drone deliveries to the Isle of Wight will cut delivery times ‘from four hours to 30 minutes, with one flight replacing two car journeys and one hovercraft or ferry journey per delivery.’


Revolutionising healthcare logistics

While the use of NHS drones remains in very early stages, this could bring radical positive change to healthcare logistics across the UK. Apian’s drones can handle the same conditions as Helicopter Emergency Medical Services and can fly for up to an hour and a half, delivering payloads of up to 25kg. This reliable method of delivery would enable rapid transportation of medications to wherever they’re needed, whenever hospitals need them.

Apian plans to create something they have called the NHS Air Grid, ‘a nationwide network of drone routes connecting hospitals, pathology labs, GP surgeries, care homes, pharmacies and other healthcare service providers.’ This imminent trial will be the first step in constructing this network of drone corridors that aims to provide convenient and prompt care for patients in remote locations.

Amanda Pritchard commented:

‘Delivering chemo by drone is another extraordinary development for cancer patients and shows how the NHS will stop at nothing to ensure people get the treatment they need as promptly as possible, while also cutting costs and carbon emissions.’

Not only will NHS drone delivery be quicker than shipping medication through conventional means, but it will also be far better for the environment. Taking a single batch of medication on two car trips and a boat expends considerably more fuel than a single drone flight. NHS drones will not have to sit idling in traffic, nor will they get affected by delays at ports. This carbon reduction – especially if the trial is a success and this technology is rolled out on a larger scale – will help considerably towards the goal of a net zero NHS by 2040.

NHS drone deliveries to the Isle of Wight will reduce the number of patients having to travel to the mainland, helping reduce the amount of carbon emissions caused by travelling for care. The NHS accounts for 5% of all road traffic in England – while much of this figure will consist of patients travelling to and from appointments, medical deliveries themselves still make up a significant portion.


NHS drone support during Covid

Drone deliveries can also be incredibly useful for infection control as they limit the number of human contacts involved in a delivery. Instead of having someone travelling from one end of the country to another – potentially spreading covid at every pit stop and at their destination – goods can be delivered practically ‘contact-free’. This was exemplified by covid test kits being delivered to ships by drone in Montrose at the height of the pandemic.

In October 2020, the NHS also used drones to rapidly respond to PPE and covid test kit shortages by sending surplus supplies to hospitals in need. This trial, supported by the UK Space Agency and ESA (the European Space Agency), paved the way for the medication transport we are starting to see today. The current trial ‘was supported by the NHS Clinical Entrepreneur Programme (CEP) which provides support to entrepreneurial NHS staff helping nurture innovation within the NHS.’

Following this current trial in the Isle of Wight, a similar model is expected to be trialled in Northumbria. The ultimate goal of these trials is to lay the groundwork for a system where clinicians will be able to place same day delivery orders for supplies from other hospitals around the country. This would help minimise health inequalities caused by unequal access to resources, helping improve health outcomes across the country.

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