Drones carrying medical supplies: Fad or future of healthcare?

It's time to look up — literally — when it comes to how medical supplies and medications are transported, according to hospital and healthcare leaders using drone delivery.

The medical supply chain has battled numerous disruptions over the last few months, from the IV saline shortage to the scarce supply of a dye used for cancer screenings, while health systems, informed by the experience of COVID-19, look for ways to more quickly get drugs, tests and vaccines to patients.

So several supply chain and IT leaders told Becker's they're pursuing drone programs — which are still in their early phases — to expedite and improve patient care.

Early in the pandemic in 2020, Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Novant Health became the first health system to get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for contactless delivery of personal protective equipment and other critical medical supplies by drone. In June, Novant used a drone to deliver a specialty medication to a patient's front yard.

This is the type of seamless service people are accustomed to in the age of Uber and GrubHub, said Amber Fencl, senior vice president of digital health and engagement for Novant Health. The health system's partner on the drone program, Zipline, even uses its autonomous aircraft to deliver retail items to Walmart customers.

"We want to create access for our patients that is as easy, fast and personalized as possible. If we achieve this trifecta, Novant Health is enabling patients to be compliant with an oftentimes complex medication regime," Ms. Fencl said. "By allowing them to refill their medication by text and receive it in their front yard 30 minutes later through contactless delivery, we are helping them with medication management and to achieve a higher degree of wellbeing. Our goal is to help patients live healthier and to live their best lives."

Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Healthcare, also aims to deliver meds to people's homes. Allison Corry, the system's chief supply chain officer, said the venture could protect public health.

"People with sick kids probably don't want to take their kid in to pick up drugs that are needed," she said. "You don't have to worry about logistics; you can care for your child."

Medical supply companies get involved

Cardinal Health, a global distributor of medical supplies based in Dublin, Ohio, has also leapt into drones. Cardinal's senior vice president of supply chain, Joshua Dolan, said early testing of drones has shown a dramatic decrease in delivery times over automobiles. 

The average flight was five minutes and six seconds, according to Mr. Dolan, who added that drones could work as a salve to workforce shortages among delivery drivers.

One of the biggest hurdles health systems face is FAA regulations. Alice Griffith, director of business development at AirSpace Link, the vendor that worked with Southfield, Mich.-based Beaumont Health's drone experiment, said that while some regulations have been cleared, the industry's still a few years away from being able to "press a button, send a drone and have it come back to you."

Flights being used at rural hospitals

"The application for this technology is endless," said Chuck Welch, chief strategy officer for Hutchinson (Kan.) Regional Medical Center, which has been a drone delivery test site. "If you think about all the different things that we use ground couriers for now, the drone could eventually be a much faster and much less expensive option."

His hospital's experiment uses a battery-powered drone that is larger and can fly further and faster than the typical commercial model.

"Rural Kansas is like much of the rural country in that many of our critical access partners are hard to reach," Mr. Welch said. "So when a patient needs a service that can't be passed electronically, this is going to be the next best option for getting needed supplies, vaccines or tissue samples. If we get somebody that needs something tested quickly — and they can air drone it to us in a fraction of the time that it would take to courier to us — we can then run those tissue samples and get them results with immediacy."

The hospital worked with emergency medical flight company Air Methods Corp. on the experiment. Joseph Resnik, the company's senior vice president of safety, predicts that drones will one day be an integral support system for hospitals, particularly in rural areas, once regulations and technology allow flights to regularly go beyond the visual line of sight.

"Hospitals and communities that can benefit from the drone service need to help drive the regulators to make the changes needed to make sustainable operations a reality," he said.

Drones 'here to stay'

Since a cold-chain medication drone delivery experiment in 2020, Greenville, N.C.-based ECU Health has continued to explore how the technology could help it serve its rural region of more than 1.4 million people, according to ECU Health spokesperson Brian Wudkwych.

"We believe it will become a commodity in the future and an integral part of the supply chain in support of our facility-to-facility delivery," said Bradd Busick, senior vice president and CIO of Tacoma, Wash.-based MultiCare Health System, which plans to roll out drones in 2024.

The health system is designing drone launch pads, landing stations and pneumonic tube integration at its facilities so it can distribute medications, test kits and lab samples.

"The aircrafts cruise at 70 mph and can fly in high winds and rain, allowing us to make hundreds of deliveries a day for our communities all over the Puget Sound," Mr. Busick said.

In 2021, Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse, N.Y., wrapped up a yearlong drone experiment.

"We're more committed than ever based on the experience with our test programs," said hospital CEO Robert Corona, DO.

State University of New York Upstate Medical University has since created a division of autonomous machines and named a director to oversee it.

"I think it's here to stay," Dr. Corona said of drones. "Any organization that deals with logistics seems to be embracing drone transport. Being somewhat of a rural coverage area — we cover like 19 counties in central and northern New York — the ability to use drones, if they're rugged enough to handle the weather conditions, will be important. I don't think it's going to be a fad."

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