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Drone-ASHA: The future of oral healthcare?

Drone-ASHA article illustration: piloting flying copter drone at sunset.
A venture in Bengaluru saw drones used to conduct oral cancer screenings.

The Jyothy Institute of Technology (JIT) in Bengaluru has piloted a novel way of oral health screening: Drone-ASHA. 

Without the presence of any health worker or doctor, a drone attended a camp which offered screening for oral cancer. The device was equipped with brush biopsy equipment, a foldscope, and slides. Only a volunteer was present to take samples, which were examined using the foldscope and then sent via WhatsApp to a lab at HCG Hospital for doctors to review. 

The Drone-ASHA refers to accredited social health activists (ASHAs), community health workers who operate as part of the National Rural Health Mission in underserved communities in India. Development of the Drone-ASHA took place at the Centre for Incubation, Innovation, Research and Consultancy (CIIRC), in response to the overstretching of ASHAs in the course of their duties. 

“It [oral cancer screening] has to be done by Asha workers, but they are already burdened,” explained Dr Vishal Rao, chief of head and neck oncology services at HCG Hospital. “It is high time we used technology to reach out to the needy in remote corners where screening can be done without a doctor or an Asha worker.” 

India is home to 57.5 percent of the world’s head and neck cancer patients and cases are expected to double by 2030. Oral cancer is one of the three most prevalent types of cancer on the subcontinent.  Despite the prevalence, many Indians forego or cannot access oral health checkups. Innovating in the field of healthcare delivery technology could help to bridge this gap and satiate demand. 

Drones have been touted before as a means of innovating in healthcare delivery in India. This has often taken the form of delivering medicines but, as the Drone-ASHA pilot programme in Bengaluru shows, drones could have a broader role in Indian healthcare. 

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