Medical staff at WakeMed Health & Hospitals are testing a new way to transport lab samples across the health system’s Raleigh, N.C., facilities: drones.
The program, part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s pilot program to assess drone use for various applications, kicked off in August. Spearheaded by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, the first arm of the project involved testing drones from aerial delivery company Matternet on WakeMed’s campus.
“The partners each have a very different role,” said Dr. Stuart Ginn, medical director at WakeMed Innovations. “We see this as an opportunity to improve transport operations inside our system. In healthcare, that translates directly into patient care.
“Medical staff at WakeMed’s Raleigh facilities will be able to load lab samples—beginning with blood draws—onto drones from Matternet. Drones will subsequently fly across a fixed route to a landing pad at WakeMed’s flagship hospital, where the specimen will be analyzed at the health system’s central pathology lab.
One of WakeMed’s goals for the program is to reduce turnaround time for lab results by avoiding roadway delays. Today, most medical samples and specimens at WakeMed are transported across the health system’s campus by courier cars.
“In a flight path using a drone, the time period between the specimen being transferred from one of our outpatient ambulatory operations back to our main laboratory at our Raleigh campus can be very, very predictable,” explained Rick Shrum, vice president and chief strategy officer at WakeMed.
UPS, which is tasked with coordinating authorizations and licensing for the drone program, and Matternet, the main technology provider, will use findings from this pilot program to assess how drones might help to improve transport services at other U.S. hospitals.
“The role that UPS plays is basically the ‘airline’ for the unmanned vehicle,” said Dan Gagnon, vice president of global healthcare strategy at UPS. He added that healthcare is one of the company’s four “strategic growth imperatives.”
This partnership marks the first time UPS has used drones for a medical application in the U.S. In 2016, the company partnered with drone startup Zipline to deliver medical supplies, such as blood, to remote locations in Rwanda.