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ICMR releases guidelines for drone usage in healthcare

After successfully using drones for delivering Covid-19 vaccines in the north-eastern states, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has come out with a guidance document for using drones for medical supplies in far-flung areas.

According to sources, in the coming few months, the ICMR will be taking up pilots to check the viability of delivering blood bags and biological samples with the help of drones, sources said.

ICMR’s pilot will be essential because, if successful, it would help in formulating a standard operating procedure (SOP) that states can follow.

Sources said that ICMR will try out a hub-and-spoke model, where a centralised unit will be used for distributing blood, and blood products such as platelets, frozen plasma and so on, using drones.

The project is currently in a conceptualisation phase, and a location has not been decided as of now.

Why is the pilot project needed?
The pilot is necessitated because there are rarely any blood storage facilities at the community health centres (CHCs) and public health centres (PHCs). So during emergencies or surgeries, it may take a lot of time for transferring blood bags from far-off places.

Through the proposed pilot, ICMR wants to see whether it would be cost- effective to use drones for supplying blood bags.

“It should be cheaper during regular usage,” a source said. The ICMR also has to ensure that the integrity of blood and biological samples is maintained throughout the delivery using drones.

Sources said that it has to be ensured that drones do not jerk too much, and that samples are stored in optimum temperature and so on.

“If it jerks a lot, red blood cells may get haemolysed, rendering the blood bag unusable,” said a source.

Based on ICMR’s feasibility study, two approaches are suggested for an efficient drone-based delivery: they may be used to connect two district hospitals or a primary or community health centre with a district hospital.

The proposed model is expected to allow health authorities to provide quality services while making efficient use of resources.

The drones, according to the guidance document by ICMR, can be used to transfer a payload, ranging from 500 grams to 6 kg of medical supplies, in far- flung areas.

Medical supplies like BCG, measles and Covid-19 vaccines, which can be stored between 2°C and 8°C, along with tablets, capsules, syrups in bottles, gloves and syringes can only be transported safely by drones, if the document is followed.

Underlining the importance of human resources during drone operations in the field, the document calls for the identification of healthcare workers at the district hospitals and distribution centres as a critical part of drone-based delivery planning.

“The healthcare workers will be managing the transfer of supplies, packaging and other ground-level operations in coordination with drone pilots. The healthcare workers working in the universal immunisation program should be engaged in such operations since they have working experience in the management of health supplies in conventional ways,” it says.

The document enlists the components needed for the preparation of the payload:

  • A carrier box (CB) for transporting medicines and surgical materials.
  • Ice or gel packs: Hard-frozen in a deep freezer to maintain low temperature in the inner chamber.
  • Temperature logger: A battery-supported equipment should be placed inside the CB for automated real-time monitoring of the cabinet temperature of the CB at set time intervals.
  • Labels and cables: The CB should be labelled properly, with details such as date, details of medical supplies, temperature, take-off and landing points.
  • Forms and checklists: The data collection forms and checklists should be kept in water-proof bags and can be placed inside the CB.


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