June 27, 2017

A scenario in which urgent, life-saving blood deliveries could be made to accident or disaster scenes by drones rather than by road was outlined by a Royal North Shore Hospital Emergency Department doctor at an international conference in Germany.

Dr Brian Burns, 43, was the first speaker at the Social Media and Critical Care (SMACC) conference in Berlin on June 27, kicking off a three-day program with more than 50 presenters and an audience of more than 2500 critical care clinicians from all over the world.


SMACC is the result of a world-wide social media critical care community swapping information and advice. Its first international conference was held in Sydney in 2013.

Dr Burns said lively, interactive, snappy presentations designed to make the conference stand out from other medical events were a SMACC trademark.

He said technology was helping address deficiencies in trauma care including the tyranny of distance.

In contrast to his homeland of Ireland, Dr Burns said he had watched in frustration at the time it could take to get blood to trauma victims in more remote parts of NSW.

As a regular on board the NSW Ambulance and Toll Rescue Helicopter, delivering critical care and retrieval for patients across the state, Dr Burns – also the trauma director for the Western NSW Local Health District - has seen more than his fair share of horrific scenes and believes drones could be a vital tool in emergency blood delivery.

"It's so rewarding to go to a scene where someone is having the worst day of their lives, and do what I can to help them," Dr Burns said.

"I've done jobs as far away as west of Bourke … the challenge of this country is that not everyone lives near a trauma hospital and we need to harness technology to give everyone the best chance of survival, regardless of where they live.

"Getting blood products to a scene quickly can be the difference between life and death. Blood products are an emergency lifeline.

"If any country is going to be innovative in this area, it'll be Australia because of the distances involved. Challenges foster innovation."

Under Dr Burns' future vision, drones bearing life-saving blood could be dispatched from the nearest big hospital, ensuring supplies arrive at the scene at the same time, or before, doctors and paramedics arrived in the chopper.

Currently, helicopter crews are limited by the amount and type of blood products available to them. Drones could potentially boost the supplies taken to the scene.

SMACC co-founder Oliver Flower, who works in the Intensive Care Unit at Royal North Shore Hospital, said sharing knowledge via social media had become essential in the fast-moving world of critical care.

"It allows healthcare professionals from all over the world to instantly share ideas and information and then have a real-time conversation," Dr Flower said.

"SMACC was the physical manifestation of a group of passionate critical care medical educators who knew one another online and had an opportunity to revolutionise the medical conference space.

"It transpired there's been a massive appetite for this, and we're expecting a big buzz on Twitter too - In Dublin last year #SMACCDUB made over 200 million Twitter impressions, and during our event in Chicago we trended number one.

"SMACC is a not-for-profit charity and there is a shared ethos of creating free, open-access medical educational content from SMACC, which has been very popular.

"Since we started the SMACC podcast, there have been over 2.5 million downloads of our talks, downloaded in over 200 countries.

"I'm delighted Brian will kick it all off with his vision of how drones could deliver blood and help save lives."