June 27, 2019

Healthcare Logistics Is Going to the Drones

Photo of drone hovering over a man's hand

Colloquially, calling someone a “drone” conjures up an image of a sad, robotic drudge – and talking about “droning on” implies monotony. But in reality, drones, or, more officially, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are doing intriguing work in healthcare. Here are just a few examples:

  • The first transplant using an organ transported by drone was performed in Baltimore this spring.
  • At a health system campus of WakeMed in Raleigh, NC, drones ferry samples to pathology labs from miles around.
  • San Francisco’s Zipline has medical drones throughout Rwanda and Ghana, delivering blood, vaccines, and scores of other lifesaving And QuiQui (pronounced “quickie”) is planning to soon deliver drugstore items by drone throughout San Francisco’s Mission District.
  • In Ontario, tests have shown that a defibrillator can get to a person having a heart attack minutes faster by drone versus ambulance.

From Switzerland to Bhutan, the $70 billion global healthcare logistics industry is being helped, by drones, in ways that affect hundreds of millions of people, making deliveries that save lives in childbirth, illness, or emergency.

You’ve probably heard of drones for uses like your neighbor taking cool beach pictures, or Amazon perhaps sending your Prime delivery to your doorstep. And that might be fun. But drone use makes a lot of practical sense in healthcare – in fact, perhaps more than in other industries.

Our industry’s needs fit the tool well. It’s practical, because the items being moved (such as samples or medications) are often small and lightweight. It’s worthwhile financially, because the items are often irreplaceable, life-saving and need to be moved rapidly. And it’s feasible, because the items are often moved between a limited number of locations (such as around a medical campus, or from a distributor to a hospital), rather than throughout the wider world.

Regulations and concerns still exist, including worries about crashes, privacy, and aviation traffic. But drones may soon find roles throughout healthcare. Here are a few examples of how your brand might be soon be affected by the use of drones:

  • It’s easy to envision a future where drones will be involved every time a patient has a medical test or needs emergency medical care, operated by – or making a journey in place of – lab couriers and first responders.
  • It’s equally easy to envision mail-order pharmacies – who often ship specialty drugs that need to be rapidly conveyed or refrigerated – using drones. CVS is already “looking into it.” MSD tested drone delivery of medicine for disaster relief in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
  • As clinical trials increasingly experiment with digital biomarkers that allow them to gauge results using wearables on patients in real-world settings, drones could help expand the patient population. Historically, clinical-trial subjects often live near a medical center, where they can be seen regularly by staff. Drug development could be better studied – particularly in rare diseases – if subjects could live anywhere and still get medication and have their results monitored.

You might see a drone hovering above your Fourth of July beach barbecue, but don’t be fooled – these small tools are already doing serious work in healthcare.