UC San Diego Doctors Testing Drones To Help Reduce Patient Wait Time

There’s no question that a doctor’s visit can be inconvenient. It often requires patients to leave work for the day or find some extra time. But what if that patient has to come back the next day, because doctors couldn’t complete tests fast enough? Now doctors at UC San Diego Health are exploring an unconventional solution — drones — to a conventional problem.

Delays In A Diagnosis

At the UC San Diego Urgent Care in La Jolla, numerous patients can be found waiting for their names to be called. 

While some are able to get out of the building quickly and go home, other patients may have to return or potentially go to a hospital. That’s because typically urgent and primary care facilities don’t have labs to test samples, like blood. Sometimes it can take days for patients to get a full diagnosis, said James Killeen, an emergency care physician at UC San Diego School of Medicine. 

“Say there’s a patient, who has diabetes, high blood pressure … they get labs drawn, and then several hours later, or the next day, you find out they have worsening kidney function … Now you’ve sort of pushed their care back a day, two days, three days,” Killeen said. 

Hospitals have tube systems, Killeen said. So doctors can send samples swiftly through these pathways to a lab, where they can be processed within 20 minutes to two hours. And patients can be informed about their health issues much more quickly. 

But clinics typically have to send samples to a lab by car. 

“You assume that when you drop off the specimen to the car that it goes from point A to point B, but it actually goes to several other places. And that can take several hours, depending on car delays, traffic accidents,” Killeen said. 

Meanwhile, a patient’s health could get worse. And that’s a problem because the goal for medical systems is to prevent patients from having to make an urgent and costly trip to the hospital. So, Killeen said, he was looking for solutions. 

“By flying a drone, we can actually deliver these specimens in a timely fashion that’s actually cost-efficient,” Killeen said. 

A Nationwide Investigation Into Hospital Drones

UC San Diego Health announced this week that it’s launching a pilot program to test out drones, or unmanned aircraft, to see if they can deliver medical supplies and samples more quickly. But, doctors there already have a sense of how it will work.

That’s because UC San Diego is the second hospital system in the country to do this. The first is WakeMed in Raleigh, North Carolina. The hospital has had a few drones running going to a clinic across the street for a year, with promising results, according to Stuart Ginn, a medical director at WakeMed. 

“The average delivery time across that very short route was probably 40 minutes to an hour and we can do it now in 7 to 10 minutes,” Ginn said. 

Ginn, a former pilot, said federal regulations around drones are tough. But in 2017 the Federal Aviation Administration announced a pilot project so that 10 U.S. cities could test drones in fields ranging from policing to agriculture. San Diego and Raleigh got medical package delivery. 

While it’s too early to tell whether a few drones are really saving the hospital money and time, Ginn said a network of drones could have a significant impact. 

“We might be able to consolidate laboratory facilities back at our main lab, instead of having to stand up a small lab at an outpatient facility, which is costly and also takes up room that we could use to take care of patients,” Ginn said.

He admits creating that type of network could take time because drones are still a new technology. 

“It’s not like a new medical device, where if it gets Federal Drug Administration approval, the doctors will use it. This is out in people’s communities. And you can get clearance to fly, but where do you land? So it’s a much more nuanced technology,” Ginn said. 

A Leap of Faith

To make sure the drones are safe and being monitored, WakeMed teamed up with drone company Matternet and delivery service UPS. And so did UC San Diego. 

Mark Taylor, with UPS, said the drones are designed to safely carry medical supplies and samples without spoiling them. And the machinery also has safety precautions in place. 

“The aircraft itself is equipped with a parachute, it flies on a predetermined path. If it deviates at all the parachute goes off,” Taylor said. 

Federal regulators and manufacturers will be gathering data as these initial drone programs progress, he said.

“Can we fly further? Can we carry a heavier payload? … It will take some time for the industry to continue to evolve,” Taylor said. 

And Matthew Jenusaitis, chief innovation officer at UC San Diego Health, said even though there are these unanswered questions and risks, the hospital is embracing the drone project because it means innovation. 

“You need to take a leap of faith, you need to have a vision for how technologies could evolve. This is a university and academic setting, we’re always trying to ask what’s next,” Jenusaitis said. 

The hospital will evaluate the drone study when it’s over and decide from there whether to integrate the aircraft into the system, he said.

“As you can imagine hospitals have lawyers just like everyone else… but our goal is to provide the safest healthcare possible. That’s the goal of the pilot study,” said Jenusaitis.

“I think if this technology is successful, not just healthcare, but all over I think you’re going to see a lot more drones,” he said. 

UPS and Matternet officials say they hope to work with federal regulators to extend drones to more hospitals in the country.

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