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Healthcare Coming Soon To A Screen Near You

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Telehealth and virtual healthcare are among the latest trends in medicine. And rightly so—with new modes of communication, pandemic-driven restrictions and preferences for socially distant care, and a renewed emphasis on increasing healthcare equity, among other things, telehealth has seen tremendous growth recently.

However, what most people traditionally think of as telehealth at its simplest level—where the patient logs on at home to connect with a physician virtually—may soon change.

Researchers at the University of Cincinnati (UC) have innovated a way to integrate basic telehealth services into a drone, potentially expanding the bounds of what previous innovators ever envisioned with these two technologies individually.

A press release by the University describes how “Inventors Victoria Wangia-Anderson, Manish Kumar, Seung-Yeon Lee and Debi Sampsel from three colleges at UC collaborated to develop a semi-autonomous prototype that can be dispatched right to people’s homes. The drones are big enough to carry medicine or medical supplies but small enough to maneuver the tight confines of a home using navigational algorithms developed by UC engineers.” A novel aspect is that the drone will also integrate “cameras and a display screen so patients can talk to health care professionals from the comfort of their home,” in addition to carrying “a waterproof box the size of a small first-aid kit to deliver medical supplies or collect self-administered lab tests.”

UC’s press release also mentions how Manish Kumar (Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University and one of the collaborators on the drone project) and his lab have “been working on autonomous systems that combine artificial intelligence with a suite of sensors that allow drones to navigate a cluttered and complex three-dimensional environment, like the entrance to a person’s home and living room.”

These multiple functions—the ability to deliver medical supplies, collect tests, and integrate display screens for telehealth, in addition to better tools to empower autonomous navigation inside households, if executed well, may potentially serve as a relatively novel and improved solution for telehealth.

This is because one of the largest impediments of telehealth still remains the physical limitations of the technology. Accurate medical diagnostics requires a multifaceted approach and is not as simple as describing symptoms and developing a diagnosis and solution. So far, much of telehealth has been just that—patients discussing his/her own account of their symptoms, perhaps showing the physician the problem if possible, and coming up with answers. Auxiliary testing or deeper analysis may then require a follow up in-person appointment or visit. Traditional telehealth hasn’t yet figured out a way to integrate blood tests, imaging, and the physical exam component into patient encounters—all of which are incredibly crucial to providing an accurate diagnosis.

However, solutions that can better alleviate some of these problems may be able to slowly take telehealth services to the next level.

There is no doubt that drone technology is increasingly being used for robust healthcare solutions. Earlier this month, I wrote an article for Forbes about how drones are being utilized to deliver Covid-19 vaccines, playing a critical role in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Late last year, I wrote another article for Forbes discussing how pharmaceutical companies are testing drones for potential use in medication delivery. Indeed, the potential applications are endless, especially as a means to increase access to care and healthcare equity to otherwise underserved populations.

Needless to say, a lot of work still needs to be done in this space— ensuring data security, compliance with safety regulations, prioritizing patient safety, streamlining ease-of-use for patients, and perfecting the end-user experience— are just a few of the potential issues to navigate, among others. Additionally, innovators in this area have significant hurdles to overcome with regards to scaling this technology in a way that is affordable, efficacious, and still pays homage to the highest standards of patient safety and privacy.

However, if this technology is aptly harnessed, it may provide potential solutions to some of healthcare’s toughest problems.

The content of this article is not implied to be and should not be relied on or substituted for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment by any means, and is not written or intended as such. This content is for information and news purposes only. Consult with a trained medical professional for medical advice.

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