The NHS plans to use drones to fly chemotherapy drugs to cancer patients in England to avoid the need for long journeys to collect them.
The devices will transport doses from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight in a trial that, if successful, will lead to drones being used for similar drops elsewhere.
They will take 30 minutes to travel across the Solent, which will save patients on the island a three to four-hour round trip by ferry or hovercraft.
On Tuesday, Amanda Pritchard, NHS England’s chief executive, unveiled the move to help mark the 74th anniversary of the health service’s creation by the postwar Labour government.
“Delivering chemo by drone is another extraordinary development for cancer patients and shows how the NHS will stop at nothing to ensure people get the treatment they need as promptly as possible, while also cutting costs and carbon emissions,” she said.
The first drone deliveries will start “shortly”, NHS England said, subject to the outcome of the last of a series of test flights on Tuesday.
It plans to use the drones – electrical vertical takeoff and landing aircraft – to collect the medications from the Queen Alexandra hospital in Portsmouth and fly them to St Mary’s hospital on the Isle of Wight, where staff will collect and distribute them.
The drones weigh 85kg, have a wingspan of 5 metres and can carry up to 20kg. The scheme is the result of a partnership between NHS England and the technology company Apian.
“This project marks a very important first step in the construction of a network of drone corridors connecting hospitals, pathology labs, GP surgeries, care homes and pharmacies up and down the country,” said Alexander Trewby, Apian’s chief executive.
If the flights prove successful it will be much more convenient for the majority of cancer patients on the Isle of Wight who now have to travel to the mainland to receive their drugs.
Darren Cattell, the chief executive of the Isle of Wight NHS trust, stressed that “we are still at a relatively early stage” of drone use in healthcare but that drone could have “radical and positive implications for both the NHS and for patients across the UK as well as the Isle of Wight”.
Sajid Javid, the health secretary, said: “I want England to become a world leader in cancer care and using the latest technology to deliver chemo by drone means patients will have quicker, fairer access to treatment no matter where they live.”
Meanwhile, a study has found that reinviting patients every year to be screened for bowel cancer – the UK’s second biggest cancer killer – could speed up diagnosis and save lives.
Although the proportion of people taking up the NHS’s invitation to get screened has risen to 67%, bowel cancer has the lowest participation rate of all the health service’s screening programmes.
New research by Sheffield University showed that sending people a new home testing kit every year until they return one could prompt 13.6% more people to do so.
The study was funded by Cancer Research UK (CRUK) and is published in the journal Preventative Medicine.
Michelle Mitchell, CRUK’s chief executive, said: “Screening is an effective way of catching cancer early and saving lives, but not everyone engages equally, and this contributes to health inequalities across the UK.
“This study shows that sending yearly test kits to those who don’t complete them could help close this gap and save lives.”
The test used, the faecal immunochemical test, better known as “the FIT test”, looks for traces of blood in someone’s faeces. At the moment everyone in England aged 60-74 who is registered with a GP is sent one every two years. However, the government has pledged to expand the programme to 50- to 59-year-olds and the NHS has begun inviting 56 and 58-year-olds for screening.
Genevieve Edwards, the chief executive of Bowel Cancer UK, said: “We know that once someone has taken part in bowel cancer screening, they’re more likely to do so again. So it will also be vital to increase investment in endoscopy and pathology staff and equipment, to match an increase in demand for prompt follow-up tests.”