How WakeMed is reaching new heights for innovation, including with its drone program

Innovation in healthcare isn’t always about finding a new piece of artificial intelligence or adding shiny equipment to the operating room. Sometimes, it’s as simple as changing a process to improve the patient experience: Like allowing them to schedule appointments online. 

At Raleigh, N.C.-based WakeMed Health & Hospitals, Diana Rhyne serves as the executive director of innovation and research. She is spearheading simple initiatives to improve patient and provider experiences as well as larger projects, such as the health system’s drone project. 

Below, Ms. Rhyne discusses her role in innovation and how she anticipates it will evolve, as well as details about WakeMed’s drone program. 

Editor’s note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Question: Can you tell me about your role at WakeMed? 

Diana Rhyne: In innovation, we have three main goals. The first is to enable our internal innovators to succeed and encourage a culture of innovation throughout our system. The second is to find or source external innovation that we can use at WakeMed to be more efficient or improve patient care, etc. Thirdly, we look for innovative projects for investment. 

Q: What new innovations or program WakeMed is exploring? 

DR: We have our drone program, which has gotten a lot of attention lately. WakeMed is part of an FAA-approved pilot program where we are using medical drones basically as couriers. So, our drones are transporting labs, such as blood and urine samples, from clinics to our main office for analysis. 

Additionally, we are part of an FDA-approved program to test blockchain. WakeMed also deployed predictive analytics software that sorts through EHR data to identify potential predictors for decline in a patient's health. 

Q: Can you discuss the drone program in a little more detail? 

DR: We are working with Matternet, a drone technology company out of California. Recently, UPS has come on board as well. What we are doing is using drones as a regular courier system for routine labs in between our clinics and our main lab.

The drone runs twice an hour every hour in the morning and every other hour in the afternoon. Currently, it's transporting mainly blood and urine samples. Although it is a pilot program, it's a very active program. As of two weeks ago, we've had more than 1,000 flights. We've estimated with the department of transportation that nearly 3,000 patient samples have been transferred with drones. 

In the fall, we plan to expand the drone program to other locations. Our goal in all of this is to connect our healthcare system, which includes our three hospitals. When we get to that level of scale, we anticipate seeing really interesting efficiency data and use-cases for the drone itself. The drone will continue to move blood and urine samples as we begin to transfer some pharmaceuticals. When we get to the ideal scale, we can start doing more interesting things, like moving medical devices and other high-value assets. 

Q: How do you foresee your position as innovation director expanding or changing in the coming years as healthcare evolves? 

DR: We talk a lot about journey to value, and simply put, that means how do we excel as a healthcare system when we move beyond fee-for-service reimbursement. For innovation, our role will be to help the healthcare system find ways, through either technology or different processes, that create value. This could range from improving our telemedicine offerings to supply chain. It's all about the journey to value. This is where I think innovation is going to be most important moving forward. 

Q: Who do you go for advice? 

DR: Who don't I go to for advice? For innovation, we touch so much in a professional perspective. Innovation reaches so much of the healthcare system that we really have to rely on our partners. It truly takes a village. 

I rely so much on our IT leaders and legal members for when we have a new idea we think is interesting and groundbreaking. It requires us to seek out advice and listen to our leadership across the organization. 

Personally, there is a division leader within our pediatrics department at WakeMed that is someone who helps refresh my perspective. She helps me remember that everything we are doing always goes back to the patient. 

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