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13 October 2023

Drones delivering opioid overdose reversal kits could reach people more quickly than ambulances

Delivering opioid overdose reversal kits by drone could help stem the drug-related death crisis faced by the UK.

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In a study published today in Addiction, researchers from King's used real-world data of fatal opioid overdoses where a bystander was present to show that drones could have reached 78% of cases within seven minutes - the benchmark time for the arrival of emergency services for Category 1 calls in England- a huge increase on the 14% reached by ambulances.

The researchers also found that by increasing the speeds of the drones and designing specialist cargo cradles, an estimated 98% of overdoses could be reached within seven minutes.

Naloxone is a life-saving drug which reverses or blocks the effect of opioids and rapidly restores normal breathing. ‘Take-home’ naloxone kits are increasingly available from community pharmacies and drug treatment services, but a supply is not always readily accessible. Paramedics routinely carry naloxone and aim to attend emergencies in seven minutes, however this can be impacted by factors such as ambulance waiting times or the location of a patient, such as a music festival.

In 78% of cases commercial-off-the-shelf drones carrying naloxone could have reached the overdose location in seven minutes – the benchmark time for the arrival of emergency services for Category 1 calls in England.

Ambulances were able to reach 14% of cases in in this time, even when factoring in best-case scenario traffic conditions.

The modelling suggests the naloxone kit would be delivered to the site of the overdose, and the bystander would administer the medicine by nasal spray. Paramedics would attend the scene as usual and deliver the patient to urgent care.

When a person overdoses and stops breathing, every second counts. Naloxone is very effective when given at the first signs of overdose and is easy to use. This study shows that drones can get naloxone to the site of an opioid overdose more quickly than paramedics in an ambulance. This could make a huge difference to people’s survival.

Lead author Dr Caroline Copeland, from the School of Cancer & Pharmaceutical Sciences

She added: “Bystanders leaving the scene of overdoses occurs due to fear of prosecution as illegal drugs are often present at the scene. If naloxone can reach those who need it before paramedics and law enforcement, bystanders may be encouraged to help before leaving.”

Dr Paul Royall, from the School of Cancer & Pharmaceutical Sciences, first author and co-founder of Drone Mat Lab said: “Drones have the potential to revolutionise medicine delivery. A robust drone network can deliver naloxone kits efficiently. The drones under evaluation have collision detection technology so they don’t fly into buildings or through air space, and are deployed using a standalone drone station.”

An evaluation of naloxone transit for opioid overdose using drones: A case study using real-world coroner data is published today in Addiction. Listen to an interview with the senior authors by Addiction Audio here.

In this story

Caroline  Copeland

Senior Lecturer in Pharmacology & Toxicology

Paul Royall

Senior Lecturer