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Hospitals Take to the Air to Improve Home-Based Care

Analysis  |  By Eric Wicklund  
   May 27, 2024

As health systems shift more care services to the patient's home, they're looking at drones to solve key supply chain challenges

Health systems and hospitals are turning to drones to address supply chain care gaps—including challenges that both providers and patients face in accessing drugs and other medical supplies.

In the latest example, the Mayo Clinic has announced a partnership with Zipline to integrate drone deliveries into its Advanced Care at Home program. The deal aims to improve care management for the home-based acute care program by giving providers quick access to medical supplies. Mass General Brigham unveiled similar plans in January when it announced a partnership with Canadian drone company Draganfly.

The Mayo Clinic announcement, which covers the health system’s campuses in Rochester, Minnesota, and Jacksonville, Florida, adds heft to the concept of using drones to deliver medical supplies, a use case that has already seen success in other parts of the world. Several U.S. health systems, including Intermountain Health, Michigan Medicine, WakeMed Health and Hospitals, and Rady Children’s Hospital, are either using drones or have tested their use, and Amazon Pharmacy launched a drone delivery service last year in College Station, Texas.

Just last month, Houston’s Memorial Hermann Health System announced a partnership with Zipline to deliver specialty prescriptions and medical supplies to patients’ homes beginning in 2026.

“As a system, we are continuously seeking ways to improve the patient experience and bring greater health and value to the communities we serve,” Alec King, Memorial Hermann’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, said in a press release. “Zipline provides an innovative solution to helping our patients access the medications they need, quickly and conveniently, at no added cost to them.”

Drones have been on the fringe of the healthcare space for several years, usually showing up in small pilot programs aimed at improving delivery of time-sensitive supplies between two health system sites or from a health system to a patient’s home and vice versa. The use case aims to address delays or slow deliveries caused by geography, weather, traffic, or transportation issues as well as giving patients access to tests, medicine, and vaccines in their homes rather than making them travel to a hospital or clinic.

In January, Axios called 2024 a “breakout year for delivery drones,” noting that the Federal Aviation Administration eased the rules last fall to allow some companies to fly drones beyond the visual lines of sight, called BVLOS. That opened the door to companies like Zipline, Amazon, and Wing (part of the Alphabet stable) expanding their services. The FAA is expected to create standards for BVLOS operations in the near future.

The Mass General Brigham and Mayo Clinic programs represent a different use case. Both health systems plan to use drones to transport medical supplies to and from the homes of patients in acute hospital at home programs. Those programs, which have gained traction since the pandemic, require hospitals to combine digital health and telehealth services with in-person care for patients in their homes, as an alternative to in-patient care.

The complexity of the program might mean that drones would be used almost every day to send medical supplies to the patient’s home and/or transport tests and specimens from the home back to the hospital.

“At Mass General Brigham, we are looking at the future of healthcare, and part of that vision is taking care of patients in the comfort of their homes,” David Levine, MD, MPH, MA, clinical director of research and development for the Mass General Brigham Healthcare at Home program, said in a press release. “In accomplishing this at scale, we understand that we need to continue to evolve our processes to support home-based care. These types of technological solutions allow us the opportunity to create a paradigm shift in our care delivery.”

Eric Wicklund is the associate content manager and senior editor for Innovation, Technology, and Pharma for HealthLeaders.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

Health systems and hospitals have been experimenting with drones for delivery of medical supplies and tests to and from a patient’s home.

The use case addresses transportation and timeliness challenges caused by geography, weather, traffic, and the availability of couriers.

Two health systems, Mass General Brigham and the Mayo Clinic, are using drones to facilitate acute care at home programs.


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