When an EF4-level tornado hit Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in 2013, the damage was so extensive that local ambulances had trouble reaching all the homes that had been affected.
An associate dean at nearby William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine (WCUCOM), Italo Subbarao, DO, was inspired to help prevent future disasters from taking such a devastating toll.
Along with Guy Paul Cooper Jr., OMS III, he worked to develop an unmanned drone prototype that could be used in emergency response or wilderness medicine. The drone is currently in the testing phase of development.
In this edited interview, they explain the Healthcare Integrated Recovery Operations (HiRO) drone’s capabilities and how the osteopathic philosophy guides their work.
How do you envision the drone being used?
Dr. Subbarao: Emergency medical services could send the drone to assist a patient who’s in a hard-to-reach area. Guided by GPS, the drone drops a modular medical kit that contains diagnostic and treatment equipment for the patient’s situation—it could be heart attack, trauma, or another condition. There’s also live video feed connecting the patient with a health care professional who guides them through using the medical kit.
Cooper: Telemedicine is a relatively new technology, and so are drones—according to the research we’ve done, no one has yet merged the two. The HiRO drone is about more than simply transporting the medical kit; this would be a much more integrated solution.
Dr. Subbarrao: We think this has great relevance for disaster response and wilderness medicine, but it could also be used in the event of a terrorist event or a hazmat spill—the drone’s sensor could relay information about whether the area is contaminated.
What are the drone’s technical capabilities?
Cooper: It’s GPS-stabilized, which helps it stay steady when it flies. If it loses a motor, it can still fly. The live video feed is encrypted to ensure patient information remains secure. Like most technology, we’re constantly advancing what it can do. For example, we have an FDA-approved ECG recording device that attaches to a smartphone. It has a thermal camera built in, so if we send that in the kit, we can take the patient’s temperature without having to do anything extra.
Do you see any connection between this project and the osteopathic philosophy?
Dr. Subbarao: Absolutely. WCUCOM’s mission is to serve Mississippi and the Gulf South and to improve health care for our population, many of whom live in rural areas. This project was inspired by an unfortunate event in Hattiesburg—it’s a local solution that’s grounded in our dedication to our folks, but we think it has much broader applicability to the U.S. and maybe even the broader world. It’s definitely an osteopathic solution, and that’s what’s so important for us.