NHS liveried drone

NHS to trial drone delivery of chemotherapy drugs

Image credit: PA Media

The NHS plans to trial the use of drones to deliver life-saving chemotherapy drugs in remote parts of the UK in under half an hour.

The NHS has revealed it is planning to trial the use of drone technology to enable doctors to make “same-day delivery” orders for drugs and medical equipment from anywhere in the country.

The trial will see a drone deliver chemotherapy drugs from the pharmacy at Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust to St Mary’s Hospital on the Isle of Wight. The journey is expected to take 30 minutes, eliminating the need for patients to travel three to four hours by car, ferry or hovercraft to collect life-saving medication.

If successful, the technology might be used for similar drops elsewhere in the nation. 

The trial was presented by Amanda Pritchard, NHS England’s chief executive, as part of the celebrations of the 74th anniversary of the health service’s creation by the postwar Labour government.

“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," she said. 

Chemotherapy drugs are famously difficult to transport, as some doses have a very short self-life, and so the ability to transport them via drones could have a great impact on the lives of many cancer patients. 

The first drone deliveries will start “shortly”, NHS England said, subject to the outcome of the last of a series of test flights on Tuesday. After the first trials in the Isle of Wight, the NHS will continue to trial the technology in Northumbria, with a view of eventually expanding the service to the whole country. 

The drones have been developed in partnership with technology company Apian. The devices weigh 85kg, have a wingspan of 5 metres and can carry up to 20kg. 

This is not the first time that drones have been used to deliver medical supplies to the island, but previous trials did not carry such time-critical medications.

“The island has a long history of innovation," said Darren Cattell, chief executive of Isle of Wight NHS Trust. “We are still at a relatively early stage but the use of drones to transport medical supplies is a concept that has radical and positive implications for both the NHS and for patients across the UK as well as the Isle of Wight.”

The drone trial is part of the government's plans for a "digital revolution" in healthcare services in the UK that is set to improve patient care and overcome the delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Last month, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) published a new plan to digitalise health and social care services that will see the widespread adoption of digital health records and help patients contact GPs via the NHS app.

 “I want England to become a world leader in cancer care and using the latest technology to deliver chemo by drone means patients will have quicker, fairer access to treatment no matter where they live," said Health Secretary Sajid Javid. 

Currently, only 45 per cent of social care providers use a digital social care record and 23 per cent of care home staff cannot access the internet consistently at work, according to the latest data by DHSC.

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