It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… medical supplies? Lately, telehealth services have been the talk of the town when it comes to improving health access for rural and at-risk populations. However, what if there are other ways to help those in need get needed supplies quickly and efficiently? Below are some companies and partnerships piloting (pardon the pun) the use of drones across the healthcare ecosystem.
- Direct to Consumer Delivery: It seems the cool kids are all ready to get in on drone flight. CVS (UPS Flight Forward),Walgreens (Wing) and Magellan Health (Zipline) all have partnerships aimed at bringing healthcare goods directly to consumers. The flavors are slightly different – the CVS and Magellan partnerships are working on prescription medication deliveries while Walgreens currently is focused on over-the-counter products – but the message is the same: create access that is safe, convenient and fast.
- Cold Chain for Vaccines: Vaccines often need to be transported at stable, very cold, temperatures – which can prove difficult in regions with limited healthcare infrastructure. Zipline, in partnership with several other public health giants like GAVI and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have been using drones in Ghana to deliver vaccines, blood, COVID testing samples and other critical supplies on-demand to hospitals that normally would be hard to reach or, in the case of vaccines, not have adequate storage. Stateside, UPS Flight Forward has been working in North Carolina with the Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist system to centralize and distribute their COVID vaccine supply. They estimate this centralized hub and spoke model improved productivity of their pharmacy by as much as 30%.
- Lab Results and PPE: North Carolina is a hot spot for drone delivery; aside from COVID vaccines, WakeMed is working with UPS and Matternet to transport patient samples between collection points and the main lab, reducing the time to results by hours in some cases. Matternet will also be helping support a citywide drone network in Abu Dhabi for their Department of Health.
The Big Picture
If the US has 99 problems, then healthcare is definitely a big one. 30% of rural hospitals are at risk of closure, which puts not only the immediate community at risk but also supply chains that rely on a rural workforce. On a global scale, it is estimated that 50% of the world's population does not have adequate access to care. Drone delivery is shaping up to potentially be a powerful tool in addressing that gap.