Researchers Work on a Drone That Can Make Telehealth House Calls

Researchers at the University of Cincinnati are developing a small drone, that, equipped with telehealth tools, can enter a house to facilitate virtual visits, drop off or pick up supplies, even survey living conditions.

Researchers at the University of Cincinnati are creating a drone that can make telehealth house calls.

Still in development, the drone includes an audio-visual telemedicine platform and a waterproof compartment for carrying medical supplies or test samples. It’s designed to maneuver quickly and easily into and around a house, an mHealth version of the telehealth robots now seen in hospitals and health clinics.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic began, we saw a need for telehealth care delivery drones to provide healthcare in the home and in locations where access to care is not readily available,” Debi Sampsel, director of telehealth at UC’s College of Nursing, said in a news story posted by the university.

“We can perform all kinds of functions: chronic disease management, post-operative care monitoring, health coaching and consultations,” she added. “And in the health care arena, there is no age limit. Telehealth services are useful from birth to death.”

Sampsel has been working on connected health concepts for several years at the university, and helped to develop a “smart house” to test the technology for seniors and those with disabilities. Recently she and colleagues Victoria Wangia-Anderson, a professor of health informatics in UC’s College of Allied Health Sciences, Manish Kumar, a professor of medical engineering and director of the CDS Lab at the UC College of Engineering and Applied Science, and Seung-Yeon Lee, an associate professor of nutrition sciences in the UC College of Allied Health Sciences, secured a grant to develop a drone.

Originally developed as a hobby or a tools for aerial surveying and photography, drones are winging their way into the healthcare arena as a means of transporting medical supplies and test samples between healthcare sites, such as from remote clinics or doctor’s offices to a larger hospital, or Into and out of disaster areas. They’re also being tested by the Army to aid medics on the battlefield.

Sampsel and her colleagues, meanwhile, see the drone reaching into rural areas where access to care is limited, and where residents may be in need of more than just healthcare.

“Patients with limited access to transportation may benefit from telehealth sessions and delivery, aiding in reducing health disparities,” Wangia-Anderson said, noting they could be used to deliver medications and test kits, assess living conditions, even deliver interventions.

“We can use the drone to assess both availability and accessibility of foods at home as well as kitchen tools and appliances,” Lee said. “Based on this assessment, we can tailor nutrition education and counseling.”

“It can be used to promote healthy eating as a primary prevention or to help people with diet-related chronic disease management, such as diabetes, as a tertiary prevention,” she added.

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