Rwanda: Drones in Health Care - What Is Their Impact on Quality Care and Delivery?

A drone lands in Muhanga District, Southern Province (file photo).

OVER the past twenty-five years Rwanda has recorded transformation in various sectors such as education, gender equality, and technology among others.

Health sector was not left behind. One outstanding achievement is how drone technology was made a key enabler in the health sector.

It was in 2016 that Rwanda embraced this form of technology, a step that made it the first country in the world to commercially use drones to deliver medical supplies.

And since then, healthcare has never been the same. The introduction of drone technology has seen enormous changes in the efficiency and manner in which healthcare is delivered. It has made planning and execution of undertakings proficient.

And at a time like this, when Rwanda is celebrating its liberation, stakeholders in the health sector laud this achievement.

Israel Bimpe, the head of National Implementation at Zipline, a US-based robotics company that introduced drone technology to Rwanda, says that in this sector, Rwanda has really established the model for the rest of the world.

Liberation for us is the pride of the fact that the world's most experienced and cutting edge robotics engineers and autonomous flight operators are right here in Rwanda, he says.

"Rwanda is incredibly future-focused and innovative here and ready to take bold moves. And what we are seeing now is that countries like the United States are coming forward to say 'We want to do what Rwanda is doing'," Bimpe says.

Dr Swaibu Gatare the Division Manager of National Centre for Blood Transfusion applauds this move as well noting that innovation and technology are at the helm as drivers of change.

This, he says, has been possible because the Rwandan government has been encouraging the use of technology, adding that even the introduction of drone technology is the President's initiative.

"It was started from his office and then it cascaded to us to implement. The Government has always put the wellbeing of the Rwandan citizens at the front, this is why he found it necessary to increase the accessibility of blood to all patients in Rwandan hospitals," he says.

He also adds that such milestones have improved healthcare delivery, and that this is all possible because healthcare has been top of the Government's priorities.

Current state of drone usage

Among other feats, drones have done a great job in facilitating the supply of essential medical products such as blood.

A hospital that would previously wait for hours to attend to, for instance, a patient in dire need of a blood transfusion, can now do this in in a matter of minutes.

Dr Gatare says that before the introduction of drones, hospitals were using vehicles to transport blood from the five regional blood centres.

And because of associated inconveniences, such as poor road network, rain, mud slides (in remote areas) and other logistical constraints, this posed a very big challenge.

Transporting blood could take up to four hours on an average round trip between requesting for blood and delivery.

Today, it takes as few as five minutes and a maximum of forty-five minutes to deliver blood.

He highlighted that they have also been able to reduce wastage from 6 per cent to around 0.3 percent.

Hospitals had a tendency to over request for blood so that they could avoid making frequent trips. As a result, 6 per cent of the total units that were issued at the hospitals could get expired.

"So drones have improved access to health care, reduced wastage, reduced turnaround time, and have also improved access to special blood products like platelets, plasma, and cryoprecipitate. Hospitals had a challenge to access them, and today with the use of drones, this is just a phone call away," Dr Swaibu says.

Bimpe supplements this noting that care for certain diseases is now decentralised as more facilities got access to products they would otherwise not have stocked or used to provide care, something he says allows patients to receive care closer to their home.

He highlights that since its launch in Rwanda in October 2016, Zipline has done more than 15,000 deliveries of more than 28,000 units of medical products.

Drones are also operating in 25 hospitals countrywide out of the 64 facilities that are permitted to transfuse blood.

They include Ruli (Gakenke District), Muhororo (Ruhango District), Kabgayi (Muhanga District), Nyanza (Nyanza District), Gitwe (Ruhango District), Kirinda (Karongi District), Gikonko (Gisagara District), Gakoma (Gisagara District) Kabaya (Nyabihu District), Shyira (Nyabihu District), Ruhango (Ruhango District), and Kaduha (Nyamagabe District).

Because drones have not yet started operating in all the hospitals in the country, it is still a challenge.

Dr Gatare points out that the drone technology that is in the country today cannot exceed 80km in the air, meaning that there are hospitals that cannot be reached using drones.

He says that this can be addressed by increasing the capacity of drones.

"We need to improve the technology because we started with a drone technology that couldn't go beyond 75km, today we are at 80," he says.

He also adds that the possibility of adding a drone port would be of significance though this, he says, would be done in the future.

Plans ahead

Zipline is continuously working with the Rwanda Biomedical Centre and the Ministry of Health to ensure a continued seamless integration within the health supply chain.

Over the next two years, Zipline will be serving more than 500 health facilities in Rwanda, delivering hundreds of products including blood, essential medicines, and vaccines.

While integrating public health supply chains, Zipline aims to eliminate the need of health facilities to ever have to drive to their regional or national medical stores by providing emergency stop-gaps supplies in between scheduled routine deliveries, and to ensure access to critical products for urgent patient needs.

"There are no challenges so far, but opportunities to expand to more primary health facilities and more initiatives," Bimpe says.

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