NHS in Scotland could use drones to fly cancer drugs to patients on remote islands

A Scottish health board is exploring the possibility of anti-cancer drugs being delivered to the islands...by drones.

The move by NHS Western Isles comes after it emerged that the current arrangements for the treatments to be transported by air from Inverness Airport could be ending due to the withdrawal of the service by the current cargo company.

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Dalcross Logistics, based at Inverness Airport, has been handling the delivery process but it is now understood from a company source that the company is reviewing the service due to operational costs and the relatively small numbers of deliveries making the service “unsustainable”.

The medicines could now be delivered by drone. Picture: Josh SorensonThe medicines could now be delivered by drone. Picture: Josh Sorenson
The medicines could now be delivered by drone. Picture: Josh Sorenson
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It is understood that closure of the service is not imminent and that negotiations between NHS Highland, NHS Western Isles and Dalcross Holdings Ltd are on-going with no immediate threat to the supply of the treatments to the islands.

Commercial flight alternatives

A report before this week’s board meeting of NHS Western Isles states that the current air-link is being maintained, but there are concerns that the service could cease in June 2020 with the result that SACT will no longer be able to be sent by air by NHS Highland for administration to patients resident in the Western Isles.

The report states that NHS Western Isles has explored the option of delivery of the treatments via road and ferry but ‘this was not agreed to by NHS Highland unless there was no alternative’.

NHS Western Isles has looked to secure a SACT supply from other licensed manufacturers ‘to help maintain more patients’ treatment in Western Isles’ and to avoid, what it calls, ‘repatriation back to NHS Highland’.

But a significant issue remains with that solution as, the report states, there are ‘no alternative commercial flight options available’.

The report concludes that NHS Western Isles is now exploring ‘an innovative solution using a drone’, but states that there is no regulatory precedent for this means of delivery in Europe, and that ‘a raft of detailed safety documentation’ would have to be prepared.

Becoming a reality

A US drone manufacturer is currently understood to be undertaking that work ‘under the auspices of a UK aviation consultant with expertise in such matters’.

The NHS Western Isles report concludes that there is also a risk that the drone delivery may not be available until after the existing air service is withdrawn.

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In a statement, NHS Western Isles said: “NHS Western Isles is committed to providing as much care and treatment as we safely and effectively can, here in the Western Isles. Local treatment with chemotherapy is extremely important for us and our community. Two issues are currently on going.

“Firstly we are discussing with Dalcross Logistics options to resolve the required screening of chemotherapy prior to air transportation to the Western Isles. We are committed to finding a workable solution and hope to meet with Dalcross representatives over the next few weeks.

“Running in parallel, and looking to the future, is an initiative to fully explore the potential use of drones to transport items to the Western Isles.

“Exploratory work is progressing well, however this is a medium term possibility in terms of becoming a reality, and not something that will resolve the current issue of screening by Dalcross.”