A January 2017 feature from Healthcare Dive identified three disruptive technology trends in health care – ride-sharing apps, drones, and voice assistants – all of which aim to cut costs while providing quality care.
Commercial drones are being used (or tested) in a number of areas, including military, agriculture, entertainment, and retail deliveries (a drone has even delivered pizza in New Zealand), as well as delivering small aid packages after the 2012 earthquake in Haiti. The first “live” use of drones in health care is occurring in Rwanda, where Zipline, a Silicon Valley startup that creates drones specifically for healthcare purposes, has partnered with the government to deliver blood products.
The country of Rwanda faces significant infrastructure challenges, with often impassible or nonexistent roads, leading to otherwise preventable deaths when blood supplies cannot reach those who need them; for example, approximately 325 pregnant women in Rwanda out of every 100,000 die each year from postpartum hemorrhage, which is preventable if they can receive blood transfusions in time. In addition to infrastructure concerns, blood is a difficult product to transport due to its perishability. Enter Zipline’s 22-pound custom-built drone. According to Zipline, some remote health centers in other countries are only able to get deliveries twice per year, but the company’s drones (called “Zips”) will enable this to increase to twice per day, for a cost that is similar to that of other forms of medical supply transportation.
Founded in 2011, Zipline’s investors include Sequoia Capital, Google Ventures, SV Angel, Subtraction Capital, Jerry Yang (founder of Yahoo), Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft), and Stanford University. Its engineers, who come from companies like SpaceX, Google, NASA, and Boeing, have created a specialized drone that can fly more than 75 miles on one battery charge, through the same weather conditions as a commercial airliner.
In partnership with The UPS Foundation and Gavi (a global vaccine alliance), Zipline will deliver all blood products for 21 hospitals and health centers in the western part of Rwanda through the country’s National Center for Blood Transfusion. This service will have the capacity to make 50-150 deliveries per day of red blood cells, plasma, and platelets; about half of these deliveries will be made to address postpartum hemorrhage, while about a third will be destined for severely anemic children with malarial infections.
When blood is needed, healthcare workers simply use a cellular phone to text Zipline’s distribution center, where workers (a combination of Americans and Rwandans) print a QR code with coordinates and the flight plan. They wrap the package of blood in butcher paper secured with biodegradable tape, scan the QR code to initiate communication between the drone and an iPad, affix a paper parachute to the top of the package, and spring-load it into the drone. The drone then travels to the desired location (which simply requires a “mailbox” drop spot the size of 3-4 parking spaces) and drops the blood from 100 feet in the air. Carrying just over 3 pounds of blood at a speed of 50-85 mph, it takes the drone about half an hour to reach its destination from Zipline’s distribution center.
Zipline plans to expand further in Africa, as well as to other countries around the world, and to deliver medications and vaccines in addition to blood and blood products. The company has been cleared by the FAA for deliveries to three sites in the U.S. – delivering medications with telemedicine appointments to a small clinic in rural Smith Island, Maryland; partnering with a blood bank in Washington State to distribute blood during natural disasters; and linking a distribution center to hospitals and tribal clinics in the Reno, Nevada area.
Following in the footsteps of Zipline, Vayu is a Michigan-based drone start-up that is experimenting with medical drones in Madagascar. In July of 2016, its quadricopter plane, which can take off vertically, successfully transported specimens from a remote village to a centralized lab for testing.
Dr. Timothy Amukele, an assistant professor of pathology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, received funding from his institution in 2016 to hire a drone engineer and conduct research on the use of drones for healthcare purposes. He has been published on the subject and has worked with individuals from various organizations interested in pursuing this new area. Dr. Amukele consulted with Dr. Geoffrey Baird, a laboratory medical director and assistant professor of laboratory medicine at the University of Washington, in conjunction with aeronautical engineers at UW, on a drone proposal to carry samples between Seattle Children’s Hospital and UW Medical Center. One of Dr. Baird’s goals is to expedite the process of tests being sent from the children’s hospital to UW’s centralized lab location, in order for children to be diagnosed and receive medication more quickly. He is also considering the possibility of drones collecting blood test samples from patients’ homes for analysis in the lab. Another of Dr. Amukele’s partners is TriCore Reference Laboratories, which does the majority of the state of New Mexico’s clinical lab testing; transporting samples is an expensive proposition there ($3.5 million per year), as the population is so spread out.
Dr. Amukele believes that medical drones will be utilized most highly in the U.S., as more testing is done here than in other countries, and many medical labs here only collect specimens, needing to send them to a centralized location for testing. However, the FAA has only recently begun allowing commercial drones to fly, with regulations that took effect in August of 2016.
Using drones in health care has a number of exciting and potentially life-saving applications: in cases of natural disaster, when roads might be closed or terrain might be rendered impassable, medical supplies will be able to get through; small rural hospitals that do not have the capability to stock great quantities of blood products, or medications that are used infrequently, will be able to receive them quickly; ships at sea that experience medical emergencies will have an efficient link to medical supplies on land; patients at the scene of an emergency or en route to a hospital can receive supplies before they even reach the emergency room; medical deliveries will not be hampered by traffic congestion in large cities. This could be just the tip of the iceberg as healthcare innovators keep their “eyes on the skies.”
By Holly Valovick – QLK