Wake Forest Baptist Health looking to expand drone delivery service

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Wake Forest Baptist Health is looking to the future of providing services for their patients and in doing so, is now setting its sights on the skies. 

More than a year ago, the healthcare system teamed up with UPS Flight Forward, which is a drone delivery service that was launched in July 2019 and became the first company to receive the Federal Aviation Administration’s full Part 135 Standard certification. 

“I think that this is the wave of the future,” said Conrad Emmerich, SVP of Clinical/Support Services and Supply Chain at Wake Forest Baptist Health. 

With the help of Innovation Quarter, Wake Forest Baptist Health is going into a three to five-year plan with UPS Flight Forward, while trying to understand the growth of drone services within health systems. 

“We are delivering highly specialized medications,” said Jane Shen, head of sector development for Innovation Quarter. 

The drones are currently traveling along two routes with constant visual line of sight, delivering pharmaceuticals from the main campus to clinics where patients are waiting. Those medicines are being compounded on demand, shortening turnaround times.  

“We want to do this much faster and have that patient really at the center of what we do,” Emmerich said. 

The drones are also being used to deliver medical supplies to help deal with the COVID-19 pandemic as Shen says they want to expand to also deliver lab samples. 

“This is a great opportunity for us to serve our patients in a real-time instead of days before we can serve them,” she said.

Shen believes this will be the norm in how the healthcare system handles logistics and supplies, while also allowing for the centralization of said supplies. 

The hope is that sometime in the next 12 to 14 months, the distance the drones travel will increase. 

“That will allow us to be able to get the right surgical supplies to the surgeons in time. That will ensure that we don’t have to have patients waiting,” Shen said, adding they hope the drones will one day be able to travel more than 100 miles and carry more than 100 lbs.  

“I think the surprises have been more positive. It’s been really interesting to see how the drones work,” Emmerich said.

Eventually, Wake Forest Baptist Health envisions being able to make drone deliveries directly to patients. 

“I think it’s endless what we can do with delivering products, delivering pharmaceuticals, delivering labs between our facilities and even further sometime in the future, to our patients at their homes,” Emmerich said. 

He adds that instead of using line of sight, they may be able to implement a radar system with constant communication as they look to increase the number of routes and flights. 

While it’s an investment now, the service may result in a reduction in healthcare costs in the future. 

“When we set up our network, we think the incremental cost of adding more routes, of delivering more goods to and from our providers. Our locations, our patients, is going to be pennies on the dollar,” Emmerich said.

Operators are also in constant contact with AirCare with AirCare taking priority over the drone service. 

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