Ultimate Clinical Lab Automation: WakeMed Uses Drone to Deliver Patient Specimens

In a first for the U.S. and for clinical lab automation, a lab has achieved a revenue-generating drone flight

This is an excerpt from a 1,550-word article in the April 8, 2019 issue of THE DARK REPORT. The full article is available to members of The Dark Intelligence Group.

CEO SUMMARY: For two years, clinical lab professionals at WakeMed Health and Hospitals have tested the use of aerial drones to transport patient specimens from a satellite lab/draw station to the central lab. Late last month, they completed the first successful revenue-generating drone flight in the U.S, and the ultimate in clinical lab automation – the commercial transport of lab supplies. The satellite lab now sends urine, blood, and other patient specimens for routine testing to the main lab.

LAST WEEK, the clinical laboratory at WakeMed Health and Hospitals in Raleigh, N.C., used a quadcopter drone to fly patients’ specimens a distance of 1,377 feet from a medical complex of physicians’ offices to the health system’s clinical lab!

The shipping of specimens followed more than two years and more than 100 test flights. During one test on March 26, the staff of WakeMed’s clinical lab worked with teams from UPS, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the North Carolina Department of Transportation (DOT) to conduct the first revenue-generating flight of an aerial drone to send supplies from the Raleigh Medical Park to the lab at the Raleigh Medical Center and back.

“This flight was the first of its kind in the United States because it was a revenue-generating flight of an unmanned drone,” said Stuart Ginn, MD, a surgeon at WakeMed and Medical Director of WakeMed Innovations, a team of professionals who develop and implement ideas for improving care. Before becoming an ear, nose, and throat surgeon, Ginn was an airline pilot and flight instructor.

“This is one of the first of several steps we’re taking in this project. Right now, we’re approaching the use of drones to deliver medical laboratory specimens very cautiously while we consider what drone flights can do for our patients and for the health system.”

This test was one of the last test flights to transport medical specimens potentially containing bloodborne pathogens and to collect temperature stability data before going live with patients’ specimens. “We completed more than 100 test flights to ensure the drones can operate on an every-hour-on-the-hour pick-up schedule and we’re satisfied in that regard,” said Michael H. Weinstein, MD, PhD, Director of WakeMed’s Pathology Laboratories.

Clinical Lab Automation At Its Finest

An aerial drone flying at 40 miles per hour could reduce the time for delivery from physicians’ offices at Raleigh Medical Park to the hospital lab from about 30 minutes by courier to just over three minutes by aerial drone, according to UPS. Also, a drone would not be subject to delays that traffic can cause for couriers on the road.

In addition to working with the FAA and the state DOT to secure the requisite approvals to use drones for specimen transport, the staff at WakeMed worked with delivery company UPS and Matternet, a company in Menlo Park, Calif., that manufactured the drone.

Following the successful completion of the test on March 26, the physicians and clinical lab staff took another step forward in clinical lab automation last week by using the unmanned autonomous aerial drone to transport patients’ clinical laboratory specimens over the same distance from physicians’ offices at Raleigh Medical Park to the lab at WakeMed’s hospital in Raleigh.

“My part in this project is to explore the evolving capabilities and to determine if using drones can either be commercially advantageous or provide advantages in patient care that cannot be obtained in any other way,” Weinstein said in an interview with THE DARK REPORT.

As most clinical labs do, WakeMed uses couriers in cars and trucks to transport patients’ specimens. But over the next two years, WakeMed will test how many deliveries drones can make. “We expect to have drones running on a regular schedule from the medical campus to the main hospital laboratory,” he said.

Drones Moving Specimens

At least one other clinical laboratory has tested using drones to deliver supplies or specimens. Two years ago, researchers from Johns Hopkins published an article in the American Journal of Clinical Pathology based on the results of a test to deliver chemistry and hematology samples. Since 2016, UPS has worked with the government of Rwanda in East Africa to use drones to deliver blood to transfusion facilities on demand.

WakeMed’s is the first routine flight for revenue in the US. “We’re standing on the shoulders of those other projects,” Ginn said of Johns Hopkins and UPS.

As of March 26, the use of the drone had passed more than 100 such tests. “Right now, we’re in this first level of development in which we’re aiming to prove that drones can work both from the point of view of specimen integrity—meaning specimens don’t get too hot or too cold and they don’t get smashed up,” said Weinstein.

“Also, we need to be concerned about the safety of the community because, for example, there’s a road that the drone passes over as it goes from the medical complex to the hospital labs.”

A crashed drone carrying patient samples could create a biohazard on a public street. “We need to be careful about what types of specimens we’re putting into the drones,” Weinstein said. “Therefore, we won’t transport specimens such as biopsies that can’t be replaced, or cerebrospinal fluid that would be very difficult to replace. Those things will not go in the drone, at least for the near-to-intermediate term.

“The scope of the project over the next two years or so is to expand this transport network to include basically our larger facilities,” Weinstein said. “We would anticipate that at the end of two years, we will be collecting clinical laboratory specimens from at least two of our three hospitals.”

Do you believe that this extreme version of clinical laboratory automation is worth the effort and expense? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below


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