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Redesigning a 21st-Century Supply Chain in Healthcare: Unlocking the Potential of Drones

Drones

With the UK looking to secure its position in the third technical revolution, the exploration of drone technology has emerged as a vital component of the country’s technological advancement. A report, published by independent policy institute Curia, has shed light on the significant potential of drone technology in revolutionising the medical supply chain. 

The rapid development of drone technology has opened new possibilities for revolutionising the medical supply chain in the UK. Based on a roundtable discussion that brought together leaders from the drones and healthcare sectors to explore the potential of using drones in medical supply chain management, the 21st Century Supply Chain Roundtable Report, published by independent policy institute Curia, highlights a series of high-level recommendations for the future development of the sector.

The meeting, held under the Chatham House Rule, focused on the challenges, benefits, and considerations associated with integrating drones into the healthcare supply chain. The report highlights key insights from the discussion and emphasises the need for effective policy and collaboration to unlock the full potential of drones in healthcare.

Policy Landscape and Resiliency Challenges

The report highlights the current lack of a policy on medical supply chain resiliency for the NHS and acknowledges the need for the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to address this issue. To test the feasibility and benefits of incorporating drones into the supply chain, a project has been initiated. However, the project faces challenges related to procurement costs, inventory management, resourcing, and global dependencies. Despite these challenges, drones can augment existing systems and offer benefits such as faster delivery, support for remote locations, reduced travel time and increased staff efficiency. Notable examples, such as the Isle of Wight NHS Trust’s chemotherapy delivery and the testing of defibrillator delivery by drones in Wales, demonstrate the potential impact of drone technology in healthcare.

Integration and Overcoming Hurdles

The successful integration of drones into the medical supply chain requires addressing various hurdles. These include regulatory compliance, alignment with medical processes, development of effective business cases, skills development, and public acceptance. The PwC Skies Without Limits report suggests that careful planning, investment, and stakeholder engagement can help overcome these challenges.

While the use of drones in medical supply chain management presents significant benefits, there are associated risks that need to be addressed. These risks include maintaining data integrity, complying with distribution rules, ensuring drone safety, minimising harm to other airspace users, preventing criminal activities and protecting data security. A comprehensive policy framework should address these concerns to promote the safe and effective use of drones in healthcare.

The Third Technical Revolution and Collaboration

The UK is actively exploring the application of technology in various industries to secure its position in the third technical revolution. Drones play a crucial role in this revolution and collaboration with regulatory bodies such as the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is essential to shape the future of drone technology in healthcare supply chain management. Other government bodies, including the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, are also exploring drone applications in different sectors.

More Questions and Considerations

The report highlights questions raised during the roundtable discussion, particularly regarding the need for pilots and self-serve operations in remote locations. The economic value of drone operations is also a significant challenge that requires a clear demonstration of use case achievement. Additionally, the article emphasises the importance of managing airspace, addressing concerns around interception and criminality, and ensuring the integrity of goods during drone operations.

Founder of Medical Logistics, Alex Landowski,emphasised the transformative potential of this technology, stating, “Having been involved in the first out-of-sight-line drone flight corridor trial in the UK aimed at accelerating medical deliveries, we’ve seen first-hand the capabilities of this tech. We’ve seen general time savings of about 40 per cent and over a 90 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions compared to both electric and diesel vans. Drones offer a more environmentally friendly and efficient alternative to traditional transport methods. In the sky, there are no traffic congestions, potholes, or heavy infrastructures. Advancements like unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can augment existing logistic fleets, providing faster, more sustainable, and cost-effective solutions. Ultimately drones have the potential to save time, the environment and, most importantly, lives.

Examples from the UK and Internationally

The report provides examples of ongoing initiatives in the UK and internationally to showcase the potential benefits of using drones in medical supply and pathology sample delivery. The examples include trials conducted by Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust, and the Isle of Wight NHS Trust. These examples highlight both the potential benefits and the challenges related to regulatory approval, integration into existing operations, and building stakeholder trust.

Final Thought

The report outlines several actions discussed during the roundtable. These actions include engaging with commercial firms to establish repeatable drone delivery services, thus collaborating with other sectors to drive policy and action.  There is no doubt the UK needs a coordinated action plan to deliver a fully operable and integrated logistics system with drones able to service the requirements of our healthcare system. There are obvious advantages, but leadership is desperately needed across government to make this a reality.

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