5 Ways Drones Could Improve Prehospital Care

Drones delivering organs, medications, supplies, and lifesaving devices may seem like practices from a science fiction novel, but technology advancements have made it possible to use unmanned aerial vehicles for prehospital care.

Drones are devices that are new to the medical field, but they are being used to reach people in distress faster than first responders. As a result, a few researchers and clinics have had success with using drones in emergency situations. 

In this article, we discuss 5 ways drones can improve prehospital care as well as the risks of using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and how we can reduce those risks. 



According to a 2018 article in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services, “Each minute without CPR decreases the survival rate of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest (OHCA) patients by 10%. Meanwhile, using a defibrillator within the first five minutes can save between 50-70% of OHCA patients.”

The idea is to have automated external defibrillators (AED) delivered to the scene before EMS arrives because drones can travel to the location unhindered and therefore, faster than EMS. Civilians will use the AED on the patient while either being guided by EMS or a 911 operator. 

The Journal of Emergency Medical Services reports that “bystanders, as well as first responders administering CPR and utilizing public access defibrillation programs (PADS) in Stockholm County, reduced the defibrillation time, but it has done little to improve the survival rate.”

Medical professionals, particularly first responders, would like to implement unmanned aerial vehicles equipped with defibrillators to the scene of patients who are in cardiac arrest. They predict the survival rate can be increased by getting the AED to the scene faster than first responders via a drone. 

However, there are some risks and limitations involved in using drones as first responders to any medical emergency, which we discuss later in this article.


Most people know that transplanting an organ quickly is critical to delivering a vital organ, but you may not know that every minute counts even when a healthy organ is transported to the hospital in a timely manner. The longer it takes to get an organ from one location to the patient, the less life span that organ will have. 

As a result, medical scientists are trying to find ways to shorten the time an organ leaves the donor body to the time it is transplanted into the recipient. That’s where drones come in, because they may be able to reach the hospital much faster than the transport vehicle that has to navigate traffic.

“A drone carrying a donated kidney landed at the University of Maryland Medical Center for Transplant — an important step in researchers’ quest to overhaul organ delivery.” – The New York Times, 2019

In this instance, researchers in Maryland put their theory to the test and successfully used a drone to transport an organ a short distance from one hospital to another. 

However, there are some risks with using drones to transport organs. Mainly that doctors and surgeons cannot monitor the organ’s health during flight. They can only track the drone in real-time, which allows them to make sure the drone makes it to the location safely but does not ensure the vitality of the organ is preserved during transit. 

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Technology has allowed us to significantly reduce first responders time, but every minute counts during a medical emergency. Unfortunately, EMTs often do not reach the person as fast as we would like. 

This has influenced professionals in the EMS field to research the effectiveness of medical advice from an expert via drone until EMS can get on-site. We know the faster a patient receives professional medical help the better their likelihood of a full recovery is. 

Drones could be used to allow civilians to communicate with a medical professional and administer first aid that is guided by an expert while they wait for paramedics to arrive. Moreover, the doctor could assess the patient’s condition using a camera on the UAV, then communicate their findings to EMTs, ultimately preparing them for the situation.  


Imagine you or someone near you is having an allergic reaction or asthma attack and no one has the life-saving medications needed for one of these incidents. An unmanned aerial vehicle could deliver an EpiPen to someone having an allergic reaction or an inhaler to a person experiencing an asthma attack faster than EMTs. 

Likewise, drones could also deliver emergency medical supplies for those who have been injured or burned. This includes blankets, gauze, tourniquets, dressings, antiseptic ointment, and so forth, allowing bystanders to treat a patient until first responders arrive. 

The RT Magazine for Decision Makers in Respiratory Care’s 2017 article reports: 

UAVs have already been used to deliver AEDs and asthma inhalers. According to the Mayo Clinic, drones were able to deliver medical supplies to Haiti in response to the 2012 earthquake. In addition, Doctors Without Borders has used drones to transport tuberculosis test samples from a remote village in Papua New Guinea. Meanwhile, some aviation and humanitarian aid organizations have begun airdropping medical supplies from drones in countries in Africa, such as Rwanda and Tanzania, places that lack the medical resources or infrastructure to accommodate speedy emergency services. 

Delivering emergency medical supplies and medications via drones is perhaps one of the greatest benefits of using UAVs in the medical particularly for those who need life-saving medications. 


In a previous article, we discussed how IoT devices could help first responders in the event of a disaster. Drones are one such device that could be used in disaster situations and for multiple purposes.

According to RT Magazine, “an asthmatic child in Houston lost his life after an asthma attack during Hurricane Harvey was not treated quickly enough, in part due to the impact of flood conditions on EMS response.” An unmanned aerial vehicle could be vital to delivering medications and supplies to those in need that cannot be accessed quickly, such as the case above. 

Moreover, first responders could use drones to assess the integrity of structures like buildings and bridges, allowing them to enter the location safer and more prepared than they have with previous technologies. 

What are the Risks?

Although UAVs can greatly improve prehospital care, there are some major risks and limitations that we need to be aware of before we fully implement drones into the medical field. We should consider the following:


The Maryland group who transported a kidney to the University of Maryland Medical Center, “conducted 44 tests and flew the drone for 700 hours.” This helped them perfect their technique before delivering the organ to the University of Maryland Medical Center, and it’s the key to reducing the risks of using UAVs in the medical field.

We will have to conduct thorough test runs to ensure we reduce the risks of drones malfunctioning or encountering environmental issues and we’ll need studies to help us develop programs that make it safe for bystanders to administer first aid.

The Bottom Line

The benefits of using UAVs, such as delivering vital medications or emergency supplies, with proper implementation and safety measures, can far outweigh the risks of using drones. Drones can overcome many of the challenges first responders encounter when it comes to delivering medical care quickly. Furthermore, the risks of using drones in the medical industry are relatively low if we compare them to the risks of waiting for EMTs or having them enter a dangerous situation without a full assessment of the site.  


Claesson, A. (2019). Emergency Drone System Displays Effective EMS and Rescue Applications – JEMS. [online] JEMS. Available at: https://www.jems.com/2018/06/01/emergency-drone-system-displays-effective-ems-and-rescue-applications/ [Accessed 1 Oct. 2019].

Claesson, A. (2019). Emergency Drone System Displays Effective EMS and Rescue Applications – JEMS. [online] JEMS. Available at: https://www.jems.com/2018/06/01/emergency-drone-system-displays-effective-ems-and-rescue-applications/ [Accessed 1 Oct. 2019].

Fratantoro, M. (2017). Using Unmanned Aerial Drones to Deliver Emergency Care | RT. [online] RT: For Decision Makers in Respiratory Care. Available at: http://www.rtmagazine.com/2017/10/using-unmanned-aerial-drones-deliver-emergency-care/ [Accessed 2 Oct. 2019].


Hector Caraballo, MD is a practicing Board Certified Emergency Physician and Chief Medical Officer at MedCognition.

Brandy Vickery is a professional medical writer with a degree in Health Administration and is currently earning a degree in English Creative Writing. She enjoys writing about medical technology, processes, and concepts that improve the healthcare industry for everyone.

MedCognition loves to explore innovation in healthcare and public safety. We are rethinking medical simulation and created a holographic medical simulator called PerSim.