Minority Retort

May 16, 2015 – The audience reacts as a drone flies low over the crowd before the start of the awards presentation at the Memphis In May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest at Tom Lee Park Saturday evening. (Jim Weber/The Commercial Appeal)

“We had imagined the technology being used in a future relief expedition to some far-away place. Now, shockingly, we see a need for its use in our everyday lives immediately.”   This well-intentioned enthusiasm from Dr. Javaan Chahl  defense science and technology chair at the University of South Australia, represents another threat to the practice of medicine in service to the individual.

The newest du jour is pushing drone technology to keep an eye on crowds, doubtless to spot early disease spreaders and separate them from the rest of the her-, uh, crowd.  The Pirates & Princesses site is clapping its happy little mouse hands at the thought of such monitoring keeping Disney vacationers safe using drones, facial recognition scanners (in lieu of fingerprint scanners, which does seem to have some merit), and thermal cameras to take guest temperatures.  What is not known yet are the practical implementations:  If a bedraggled dad lugs his family to the Magic Kingdom and the youngest has a fever newly acquired from their local day care, will the entire family be sequestered off to the side?  Will they have to submit to a medical screening before gaining admittance?  Will they get a refund as a sort of modern leper’s bell if deemed unfit for public contact?  So many questions.

Up in Westport, Connecticut  hardly a hotbed of civil liberties, “the city’s police force has teamed with drone maker Draganfly to launch ‘pandemic drones’ capable of enforcing social distancing requirements and performing on-the-fly fever testing to determine if individuals may have coronavirus symptoms.”

“Included in the drones’ new suite of features is a computer vision system that can keep tabs on the health and behavior of citizens.”  Draganfly claims “the system can read and display to the drone operator a person’s temperature, heart and respiratory rates, and even detect people who are sneezing and coughing… [it] can accurately detect infectious conditions from a distance of 190 feet.”  

The Westport PD promises that drone systems will only be used to monitor “at-risk” populations out in public. “The goal is to provide better health monitoring support for potential at-risk groups, including seniors, as well as for gathering crowds at beaches, train stations, parks and recreation areas, and shopping centers.”  

Even as these compassion drones are now being extolled for use against crowds, sorry, I mean for crowd health, the delivery of any and all health care is increasingly felt at gut-level by most to be a public concern.  This current national viral clench has not lessened that instinct.  It is not too difficult to imagine the local PD referring a drone-detected febrile individual and summoning an ambulance for him, or directing him to the local urgent care (with whom they have a local agreement, eagerly negotiated with the owning corporation to replenish recently lost revenue).  Suppose the individual primary care office had to certify as non-communicable a person denied admittance to a football stadium before that person’s season tickets were re-validated?  Who could publicly object, when it’s all for the public good?  Suppose a local zip code’s social distancing, and average vitals-by-drone were worked into Medicare reimbursements as a new population health core measure?  (It’s a 100% gold-plated lock the AAFP would get behind this).  As commentators, and later as enforcers, physicians or other providers of equal distinction (sarcasm) will be dragooned into getting on board with this exciting new team approach.  Heretics will be shouted down, and their medical licenses properly re-examined.

Not to denigrate the concept of “population health,” which as we’ve recently observed, would never be used in arbitrary or punitive ways, in an era where no step is too far in protecting at-risk populations.

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