Drones have been flying over rivers to bring medical supplies to remote and Indigenous communities in British Columbia and now the project is expanding further.
The University of British Columbia worked closely with the Stellat’en First Nation to pilot the drone initiative, clocking in 1,200 flights over 12 months, between October 2021 and October 2022.
Dr. John Pawlovich, a clinical professor in UBC’s department of family practice and telehealth lead for the Rural Coordination Centre of BC, believes this first phase of the project was extremely successful.
“Those communities that are on the edge of our health-care system, deserve better than what the health-care system has traditionally been able to deliver,” he says.
Originally, the first phase of the project was not designed to fly supplies but instead to do test runs to build knowledge.
"The goal of the exercise is and was to continue to understand how drone technology could influence hopefully positively the medical supply chain as it relates to rural, remote Indigenous communities,” explains Pawlovich.
Over the test period, a drone flew between the communities of Stellat’en First Nation and the Village of Fraser Lake. It's a distance of about five kilometres with a lake in between.
"I can tell you there's a tremendous number of moving parts that need to be worked on,” he tells Glacier Media.
The drone, called Sparrow, was tested in all weather conditions, multiple times a day, five days a week.
Pawlovich said this was done "to try to understand what we could do or [couldn't] do."
As the project continued, prescriptions and medicine were transported to the communities.
“The patients did get to experience that,” he says.
Family physicians would see the patient virtually, understand their needs, send a prescription to a pharmacy and then have it delivered by drone to their home.
“That’s transformative,” he says. "Being part of the project was really noteworthy, really special."
Pawlovich has worked as a family physician that has supported Stellat’en First Nation for more than 20 years.
Health-care equality needed
The first part of the drone initiative was a ‘baby step’ in understanding how medical supplies can be delivered to remote Indigenous communities and rural non-Indigenous communities.
“We know very clearly that rural communities, remote communities, Indigenous communities are disadvantaged in the health-care system on many levels,” says Pawlovich.
After a successful first phase, he believes this project holds the potential to expand. Communities that have a lack of pharmacies or doctors could benefit. Products like blood or medical supplies can be transported faster with the drone than in a vehicle or on a boat.
“This creates an opportunity to enhance the number of modalities of transportation in the medical supply chain that can strengthen rural communities and bring care closer to home to where patients and families are,” he says.
The pandemic highlighted the need for health-care supplies and exacerbated inequitable access to health care, he adds.
“There's a clear and present need to improve how medical supplies get to the communities that need those medical supplies,” he says. “If we don't innovate, if we don't think outside the box... we're never going to get to a better place. And so in the spirit of equity, this work must happen.”
Going the distance
Transport Canada has granted the program a special certificate that allows the drones to go further. The drone's operator also doesn't need to have it in their line of sight at all times.
Pawlovich says this will allow his team to fly into more remote communities and over mountains, “where those disparities are much more pronounced.”
For the second phase of the project, they'll be working with partners like the University of Northern British Columbia, Northern Health Authority and the First Nations Heath Authority. They also hope to bring organizations like Canadian Blood Services, LifeLabs and different pharmacies into the fold.
"We're not there yet, but we're quite hopeful and optimistic that we have a lot of people interested,” he says, noting the group recently met with Prince George Airport staff.
"Having drones that will eventually have to navigate to larger airports like Prince George, is going to be necessary,” he says. “We would really love to start to focus on advancing part of this work.”
He’s now questioning if they could move blood products and blood specimens to places that don’t have access to that medical service.
"I think British Columbia is really set up well to lead out on this type of research,” he says. “There's tremendous potential to build on the expertise from the communities themselves.”
Technology is advancing rapidly, he adds, and there is potential to use different drone vendors depending on the need and location they would fly to.
“We understand what history is going to do, it's going to keep changing, and this technology is not going to go away. It's going to advance,” he says.