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Defibrillator Delivery by Drone May Cut Response Time Saving Lives and Brain Function after Cardiac Arrest

Susanna Sisson's picture
Drone capable of delivering medical supplies

Drones are being used for everything from delivery of pizza and purchases from Amazon to providing temporary internet service in remote areas, use in oil fields and offshore drilling rigs, managing traffic in the UK, and catching rhino poachers in Africa. The military has many used for drones such as collecting intelligence, although military uses are closely guarded technology. Now the delivery by drone of automated external defibrillators (AEDs) in remote areas may cut response time, saving lives and brain function after a cardiac arrest.


The average response time nationwide for emergency medical service (EMS) is allegedly around eight minutes, however in doing research, it appears that those times are usually closer to 18 minutes or more, and very dependent upon circumstances such as time of day and traffic patterns. From personal experience as a medical professional I can attest to response times that are higher than those being reported. Some rural areas may not have access to EMS or may be difficult to reach..

The reality is there is not enough accurate data provided on a regular basis to determine whether or not EMS are doing a good job and there are no laws which govern the industry, which means EMS are essentially self-regulatory. Reporting response times is voluntary. Most studies I found were well in excess of ten years old and most appeared to be initiated by metropolitan areas to determine who gets city contracts, or after a series of lawsuits against the city rather than an attempt to improve response times and save lives.

There is a small difference in how and why cities gather information regarding fire and police response times but since most EMS and ambulance companies are privately owned and have little if any competition, there is no incentive to improve other than financial loss if they lose a contract.

Defibrillation in cardiac arrest

The defibrillator was invented in 1956 by Dr. Paul M. Zoll, a Harvard cardiologist and pioneer who developed heart monitors, pacemakers, and defibrillators used by millions of people around the world. His external defibrillator is credited for saving millions of lives by delivering an electrical shock that restarts the heart.

Cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death worldwide resulting in about 6 million deaths and most happen at home or in a non-medical setting. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), a leader in cardiovascular research, there are approximately 600,000 cardiac arrests annually in the United States, and about 395,000 of those or 66% occur outside of a hospital.

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Research shows that if a person who collapses with a cardiac arrest is defibrillated within the first minute, the victim's chances for survival are close to 90 percent. For every minute that defibrillation is delayed, the chance of survival decreases by 7 percent to 10 percent. After 10 minutes the chance of survival in adults is less than five percent.

How drones can deliver help

Cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death in the Unites States and 90% of people who collapse outside of a hospital die. The reasons are simple; lack of availability of a defibrillator and increased response time for help.

A new experimental study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that drones can cut response time by about 17 minutes arriving much faster than ambulances. When seconds can mean the difference between brain damage, survival or death, saving precious time is of the essence.

“The notion that a drone equipped with a defibrillator can be dispatched within seconds of a 9-1-1 call,” says Dr. Clyde Yancy of Northwestern School of Medicine, “and then can cut the response time by two thirds down to a few minutes means everything because when we’re trying to save a life, it’s not time is money, it’s time is life.” He adds, “What is even more unfortunate is that only about 10 percent of the people who experience out of hospital cardiac arrests recover to be completely functional again. That means that 90% of the people who collapse outside of a hospital don’t make it.”

While the AHA still says survival time is enhanced if witnessed and there is someone trained to use a defibrillator, there are courses for basic life support that teaches the use of a defibrillator along with cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

Even if a person is untrained, defibrillators are not difficult to use with pictures on the device of where to attach defibrillator pads and voice commands on whether or not to deliver a shock or wait on EMS. If a person can turn on the device and place pads on the patient then hit a button they are giving someone who might otherwise die a much better chance at surviving a cardiac arrest.

While the concept of drones saving lives may seem like a "brave new world", the technology to do just that is here and now and drones may, in fact, become the perfect delivery system for defibrillators that help save lives and brain function.