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How drones are transforming access to healthcare in India

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Drones delivering vaccines to remote areas are improving access to healthcare Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

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  • Drones can deliver vital goods to vulnerable populations, overcoming access barriers and enabling faster delivery of lifesaving supplies.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Medicine from the Sky initiative is using drones to deliver vaccines and medicine to remote areas in India.
  • The initiative has received the Chief Ministers Award for Excellence in Public Administration from the state government of Arunachal Pradesh.

The impact of drones delivering vaccines.

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the adaptation of drones in delivering medicines and vaccines worldwide. This has been extremely beneficial in regions where geographical constraints and lack of refrigerated transport pose significant challenges. In India, a country characterized by its diverse and often inaccessible terrain, there has been a critical imperative for public-private partnerships to explore drone applications that can improve the healthcare equity in rural areas.

The World Economic Forum’s Medicine from the Sky initiative is reimagining healthcare supply chains for the future. The initiative is delivering vaccines, diagnostic samples and medicine to remote areas in India using drones.

The first phase of the initiative was launched in Telangana as a test for using drones to deliver medical supplies. Over 300 drone-enabled vaccine delivery trials were successfully completed, establishing the initiative as the first of its kind in Asia.

Leveraging the insights and successes from Telangana, the project shifted its focus to the more challenging landscapes of Arunachal Pradesh, a Himalayan state characterized by mountainous terrain. In this phase, the initiative stress-tested drone systems in complex terrains and integrate them seamlessly into the healthcare distribution system. Over 650 drone flights have been executed, delivering more than 8,000 medical products to over 200 patients across a challenging 15,000km ground distance in the region.

"The Medicine from the Sky initiative has demonstrated how the country can successfully make use of cutting-edge drone technology to ensure no one is left behind, in terms of access to primary healthcare. We are hopeful that subsequent phases of this initiative will mainstream drones in healthcare."

Jyotiraditya Scindia, Minister for Civil Aviation and Steel, India
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What’s the challenge?

Last-mile delivery remains a critical obstacle in many developing countries. Medical supplies destined for remote areas often encounter problems that prevent their timely delivery: they may get damaged, become stranded, or even get lost en route.

Drones have tremendous potential to deliver vital goods to vulnerable populations, overcoming access barriers and enabling faster delivery of lifesaving medicine. One of the key challenges lies in building public confidence and ensuring regulatory compliance to integrate drones seamlessly into healthcare systems, without posing safety risks.

Additionally, the geographic diversity of countries like India adds an extra layer of complexity. Of the 30,000 government-run primary healthcare centres serving India's 1.4 billion people, 5-10% can be nearly inaccessible due to their geographic locations or vulnerability to natural disasters. This severely limits the potential reach of conventional delivery methods and necessitates more innovative solutions.

Adapting to the regulatory environment has also proven to be a long journey. While the 2021 drone regulations have ushered in opportunities for drones, it is important to acknowledge the extensive consultations between public and private stakeholders and the multiple policy revisions that preceded these changes. This demonstrates the need for regulatory evolution, which can impact the broader adoption of drone-based medical supply delivery.

A drone delivering medicines
A drone delivering medicines

Our approach to drones delivering vaccines.

Initiated in 2019 by the World Economic Forum, the Medicine from the Sky project marks a significant step forward in leveraging drones to enhance healthcare delivery in rural communities.

Operating at the intersection of two highly regulated sectors such as healthcare and aviation, the first phase of the initiative brought together diverse stakeholders, including the Government of Telangana, Apollo Hospitals, and the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog, India's leading policy think tank.

"We were privileged to be the clinical partner in the initiative and share our healthcare experiences. We look forward to continuing working with the World Economic Forum, the Government of Telangana, and other states across the country in this project, which I am sure would be the inception of a new age in enhancing the healthcare supply chain."

Sangita Reddy, Joint Managing Director, Apollo Hospitals Enterprises

While similar initiatives in Rwanda and Ghana served as an initial pilots using dones, the Indian initiatives acted as a crucible for understanding drone capabilities, integration into the healthcare distribution, regulations, economics and public acceptance.

Building upon the foundational work conducted in Telangana, the initiative expanded to Arunachal Pradesh. In this region, over 650 drone flights have covered more than 15,000 km of ground distance to deliver 8,000+ medical products to 200 patients. As part of this initiative, 7 new health facilities were enabled to use drone technology. Overall, patients saved an estimated 10,000 hours in diagnostic transport time and saw a significant reduction in expenses incurred by having to travel long distances for access to healthcare.

[...] the Medicine from the Sky programme has explored the use of drones to deliver vaccines and medicines to the remotest of places in select districts. This is a great example of technology for social impact.

Droupadi Murmu, President of India
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In August 2023, the Government of Arunachal Pradesh has awarded the Medicine from the Sky programme with the Chief Ministers Award for Excellence in Public Administration. This award is a recognition for extraordinary and innovative work done by districts and organizations in central and state governments for improving people's life.

"Medicine from the Sky has been a highly collaborative effort that has yielded successful results. The pilot programme has demonstrated how detailed planning at the last mile in consultation with local communities can go a long way in ensuring that the country benefits immensely from drone technology."

Anna Roy, Senior Adviser, NITI Aayog

How can you get involved?

We invite businesses and governments to collaborate with the Centre, actively participate in this groundbreaking initiative, and shape the future of healthcare and aviation. Contact us to be at the forefront of technological innovation that impacts lives on a global scale.

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IndiaHealth and HealthcareFourth Industrial Revolution
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Apollo Hospitals EnterpriseGovernment of Arunachal PradeshGovernment of TelanganaNational Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog
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