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Drone Delivers Lab Samples to WakeMed Hospital: Healthcare's Kitty Hawk Moment?

Analysis  |  By Mandy Roth  
   March 28, 2019

WakeMed explores technology with UPS and Matternet, launching first FAA-sanctioned, revenue-generating drone flight in U.S.

More than a century ago, the Wright Brothers launched the first manned aircraft flight, landing the plane 120 feet from its starting point on the beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.                      

This week, 200 miles away, a Matternet drone bearing a load of lab samples flew from one building on the campus of WakeMed Health & Hospitals in Raleigh, North Carolina, across busy streets to the main hospital. The unmanned aerial transport, which is a new service launched by UPS, marks the first revenue-generating flight in the U.S. sanctioned by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Each event, on its own, might not seem impressive. Yet just as the Wright Brothers laid the groundwork for the entire aviation industry, the March 26 drone flight may go down in history as a foundational element that helps redefine the infrastructure of tomorrow's health systems, says Stuart Ginn, MD, medical director of WakeMed innovations, who is also an ENT surgeon and pilot.

"WakeMed and the innovations team see true potential for transformative change for healthcare systems using this technology as it as its scales," says Ginn, who is also a pilot.

"It's an unbelievable opportunity to be involved in something disruptive and potentially important," says Rick Shrum, MBA, MHA, vice president and chief strategy officer at WakeMed.

Transporting lab samples is actually a big issue for WakeMed and many other hospitals, involving costly couriers, particularly for stat orders. Traffic delays complicate matters.

One of the short-term goals is to provide more efficient service and determine "at what scale you have direct cost savings using this technology across [different] use cases," says Ginn. That's literally why we're doing this is to help answer those questions for ourselves and for other healthcare systems."

While the program dovetails perfectly with WakeMed's focus on value and innovation, says Shrum, the health system has a bigger vision.

"It's really more interesting to think about how it can potentially change how we design our healthcare system," says Ginn. WakeMed has three hospitals and scores of other facilities. One idea is to consolidate lab activities at the main hospital, freeing up space and resources to see more patients at the smaller facilities.

"The hope would be that we end up with a network connecting our three hospitals with what we call our 'healthplexes,' which are freestanding ERs often with labs, imaging facilities, and clinics as well. These are theoretical benefits at this point, but when we look long-term and start thinking about what we can do with the technology, that's where it gets interesting to us."

The program is in its early stages, with numerous restrictions imposed by regulating authorities on payload and flight conditions. Until safety is established, WakeMed has extended those prohibitions even further, for example, excluding pathology samples from the flights. 

The testing phase is scheduled to take at least two more years, and WakeMed hopes to expand the number of routes during that time, while establishing cost and efficiency criteria.

"One of our aspirational goals for Wake Med is to be a value leader," says Shrum. "We think this particular strategy fits into that very nicely."

Mandy Roth is the innovations editor at HealthLeaders.

Photo credit: UPS


As it scales, technology presents opportunity for disruption of healthcare delivery and design.

First flight involved payload of lab samples transported across the WakeMed campus.

The vision is to create a network to transport materials throughout the WakeMed system to centralized locations, freeing up space at other facilities.

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