Remote medicine: drones deliver healthcare to developing countries
Nigel Whittle, Head of Medical & Healthcare at Plextek, explores how disruptive technologies have the potential to transform the lives of millions in areas where access to health care is limited.
Much has been talked about with regards to the use of drones, or Unmanned Autonomous Vehicles (UAVs), for the delivery of commercial products. Back in 2013, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos claimed that drones would soon become ‘as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road’. However, this is yet to come to fruition and in reality, still seems to be a long way off.
In the meantime, the use of drones has quietly moved forward in another very significant sector. So, is the sky the limit when it comes to healthcare?
Earth versus sky
One of the biggest challenges facing the provision of affordable healthcare in the developing world is the patchy distribution of facilities and expertise. In particular, remote rural areas, as well as presenting environmental demands, often lack trained healthcare workers due to the difficulty in attracting practitioners. Many of the better educated and skilled locals migrate to the cities.
This problem is then compounded by the poor infrastructure of roads and other transport networks. As a result, it is not uncommon for patients, irrespective of age and physical health, to walk many miles over harsh terrain to see a healthcare practitioner, who themselves may have limited resources at hand. That walk may have to be repeated several times for further diagnosis and treatment. Recent examples of extreme weather events can render land transportation in any form hugely demanding.
But a paradox of developing countries is that they are actually often capable of leap frogging more advanced economies through infrastructure developments in the same way mobile networks have rapidly supplanted fixed line networks in numerous countries.
In the same way, disruptive technologies have the potential to transform the lives of millions of people living in countries where access to any form of healthcare is limited.
The main reason for this is that many novel diagnostic technologies are being designed for use at the actual point of care where the need is most acute, rather than for centralised hospital and laboratory facilities found commonly in the developed world. An example is the rapid and affordable DNA-based tests for infectious diseases, which not only provide sensitive indications of exposure to pathogens, but can also indicate the correct course of treatment for a particular problem.
Drones come into the equation by being able to bypass tough terrain and cover large distances without the restrictions and logistical risks associated with the reliance on transportation on the ground. They are able to deliver appropriate diagnostic tests and medicines to the patient faster and more safely while reducing the need for arduous treks.
The future is flying high
A number of developing countries are already deploying the use of drones to transport drugs, vaccines or medical aids and even blood. Perhaps one of the most impressive examples is Zipline International, a Silicon Valley start-up which uses the technology to support medical clinics in Rwanda. This system of delivering life-saving medicines and other health treatments has been so successful since its inception in 2016 that it is now also being rolled out in Tanzania.
It works simply by health workers based at remote clinics and hospitals texting orders for necessary medical products to Zipline. Within minutes they are loaded from distribution centres onto the drones, arriving by parachute just 15 minutes later for a journey which would previously have taken four hours. This agile supply chain can make a massive difference in the provision of critical healthcare to patients and at the same time empowers the doctors themselves.
This tried and tested success means it is likely that using drones for the distribution of high-value and diagnostic items in remote and adverse environments will only grow in demand and expand going forward. This in turn will lead to an increasing need for enhanced control and navigation systems.
Technology companies will need to design their drones specifically for this work and create the associated required solutions to take advantage of the potential demand. This could mean miniaturised systems with minimal size and weight but with the right power factors for successful and safe deployment and delivery.
Unmanned drones give us a remarkable example of how technology used in one part of the planet for one particular ‘first world’ industry can be used in a totally different geographical region for the provision of life saving care in another one. Their use in medical care can be for both routine requirements or in crucial scenarios where time is of the essence, such as during natural disasters or in medical emergencies.
Overall, we can expect to see an overhaul of quite significant proportions in the delivery of vital health care in many parts of the globe, which have for so long been restricted by physical and topographical constraints.
OMNI: First-ever platform to launch citizen RPA developers
Robotic process automation (RPA) is the fastest growing segment of the enterprise software market due to its many benefits - from reducing manual errors to processing tasks faster. For businesses to truly benefit from this technology, RPA needs democratisation, and this is where citizen RPA development comes in.
Gartner describes a citizen RPA developer as "a user who creates new business applications for consumption by others using development and runtime environments sanctioned by corporate IT.” This could be anyone using IT tools and technology, not limited to IT specialists.
The work citizen RPA developers do spans from identifying automation opportunities to developing RPA architecture and solution proposals, focusing on scalability and extensibility. By deploying citizen RPA developers, organisations can enable enterprise automation and digital transformation on a much larger scale.
This is particularly beneficial for businesses struggling to undertake digital transformation, as a citizen RPA development programme can help drive adoption of automation as a strategic growth driver at multiple levels. With increased adoption, the cost of digital transformation becomes lower, increasing RoI.
Technology needs to be democratised – right from low-code and no-code platforms, business process modelling and identifying automation opportunities to decision-makers at all levels, creating a pool of early adopters. This group could comprise people across different functions, especially those who are aware of customer preferences, industry trends and end user experience.
But how can organisations harness the power of citizen RPA development? Step forward AiRo Digital Labs, a Chicago-headquartered global tech company.
AiRo provides innovative digital and automation solutions for the healthcare, pharmaceutical and life sciences sectors. In 2021 they launched OMNI, a subscription-based, SaaS platform to help clients accelerate their citizen RPA developer program and build digital centres of excellence (COE) within their organisation.
OMNI provides a personal RPA coach and virtual digital playground that helps enterprises rapidly build and scale automation, removing the risk of failure or talent gaps. The latter is key as research has shown that digitalisation is far more successful when championed by internal employees.
This has the added bonus of empowering employees - who will self-learn technologies including robotic process automation (RPA), artificial intelligence, machine learning, chatbots, and natural language processing (NLP), reducing the lead time for new applications and technology, as well as reducing technical gaps, making up for skills shortages and enabling their business to respond faster to critical market challenges. The virtual sandbox within OMNI gives access to all the major intelligent automation platforms where citizen RPA developers can build DIY digital prototypes. Additionally, they can access more than 150 digital assets within OMNI marketplace.
The platinum helpdesk of OMNI acts as your personal coach and is available 24 x 7 to address issues during the digital learning, prototype building, and digital governance journey.
Another key benefit is that it enables digitalisation to be bespoke to each organisation, compared to off-the-shelves initiatives plugged into the enterprise. Individual organisation's objectives decide the scope and size of the process.
As Gartner state, in today’s world of SaaS, cloud, low-code and “no-code” tools, everyone can be a developer.