WakeMed Uses Drone to Deliver Patient Specimens

In a first for clinical labs, North Carolina system uses a quadcopter to deliver patients’ samples

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 physicians’ office satellite lab/draw station to the WakeMed Medical Center’s central lab. Late last month, they completed the first successful revenue-generating commercial transport of lab supplies by drone in the United States. 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 and the North Carolina Department of Transportation 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 test was one of the last test flights to transport 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.

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 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.

As Richard Stradling reported for theRaleigh News and Observer on March 27, “A white drone with four rotors appeared over the roof of WakeMed’s main hospital on Tuesday morning and landed outside the front doors carrying a small brown box with a UPS logo on the side.” For this unmanned test flight, the drone carried the supplies on a programmed route. Now, that white drone will make regular trips on that same route.

Doctor Was Formerly a Pilot

For this project, Weinstein worked closely with Stuart Ginn, MD, an ear, nose, and throat surgeon at WakeMed and Medical Director for WakeMed Innovations. Ginn is an important member of the team because he previously worked as a pilot and flight instructor before becoming a surgeon.

WakeMed and UPS used Matternet’s M2 four-rotor quadcopter, which runs on a lithium-ion battery and can carry a five-pound payload as far as 12.5 miles before the batteries must be recharged. Like all aerial drones, the M2 vehicles are limited by regulation because they can fly only in a line-of-sight fashion, meaning they cannot be out of view of the operator.

“This flight was the first of its kind in the United States because it was a revenue-generating flight of an unmanned drone,” said Ginn. “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.”

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.

“While we would hate to lose any patient specimen, the plan during this pilot is to transport things like blood or urine where the patient can return and we can recollect that sample,” he explained. “It’s not desirable, of course, to have a patient return to give another sample, and we don’t take it lightly that we are transporting patient specimens.”

Ginn agreed, “This system has been thoroughly and carefully vetted to absolutely minimize the risk to everyone involved. I say that from an operational standpoint and from my background in aviation. Everyone’s role in this project has been all about risk mitigation, and, the FAA’s role has been to ensure safety. That’s what they do.”

Over the next 24 months or more, WakeMed and UPS plan to expand the use of drone deliveries.

“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.

Goal Is to Explore Use of Aerial Drones To Save Money, Cut Lab Turnaround Times

AMONG THE BENEFITS OF USING A QUADCOPTER AERIAL DRONE to transport patient specimens from physicians’ offices to a lab is that they can take off and land vertically and then fly horizontally, 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.

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 in cars or trucks.

Once specimens are loaded onto the drone at the physicians’ office park, the quadcopter would fly on a preprogrammed route to a fixed landing site near the hospital’s central lab. A remote pilot would monitor the drone’s flight.

In the future, aerial drones may be used to improve lab turnaround time because they could get patient specimens to the lab more quickly than it might take a courier in a car, said Michael Weinstein, MD, PhD, Director of WakeMed Pathology Laboratories. And unmanned drones may be less expensive to operate, he added.

For now, improving daily TAT is not a significant goal for the drone program, he said, but drones could be used to speed the delivery of time-sensitive specimens. “Currently, we plan to use the drone to transport blood and urine primarily for routine laboratory testing,” he commented.

Given that the distance from the medical park to the hospital is less than 1,400 feet, WakeMed’s lab administrators considered installing a pneumatic tube system. “It was decided the capital investment to put a pneumatic tube under the road exceeded the value of just continuing to run couriers,” Weinstein explained. “But getting the drone to function optimally would be almost like having a pneumatic tube system.

“In the medical park, we have phlebotomists who collect specimens and could carry them to the drone and send the drone to the landing spot right next to the hospital where they will get transported to the core laboratory,” he said. “There, those samples will go into our large automated laboratory that handles almost two million tests yearly.”

Contact Michael H. Weinstein, MD, PhD, at 919‐350‐8260.

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