Drones and Prescription Drugs

Cleveland Clinic to use Zipline’s P2 to deliver medications to patients at home.

February 2024 – The Journal of Healthcare Contracting

Zipline introduced its Platform 2 (P2) drone system in March 2023. It’s a next-generation aircraft designed to carry twice the weight of its Platform 1 system. The company’s drones have delivered whole blood, platelets, frozen plasma and cryoprecipitate along with medical products, including vaccines, infusions and common medical commodities for eight years while operating in seven countries.

Its P2 system is optimal for home deliveries, and multiple U.S. health systems nationwide are taking advantage of localized delivery to patients for medications and medical devices. Cleveland Clinic recently announced its plans to begin using drones to deliver certain medications to patients’ homes starting in 2025 with Zipline’s P2 system, which can complete precise deliveries to dense urban areas and completes a 10-mile delivery in about 10 minutes.

Cleveland Clinic’s plan for drones, docks and loading portals

Docks for the drones and loading portals will be added at several of Cleveland Clinic’s facilities in Northeast Ohio. After a drone is loaded with a prescription, it will autonomously undock, fly at 300 feet to a patient’s home and deploy an autonomous delivery droid that steers to the correct location and drops off its package to areas as small as a patio table or the front steps of a home. The drone will then fly back and dock itself.

“This technology will help us achieve our goal to expand our pharmacy home delivery program and provide easier, quicker access to prescribed medications in our communities,” said Geoff Gates, senior director of supply chain management for Cleveland Clinic.

“We’ve targeted about 20 locations in Northeast Ohio that will have the capability to send out a drone,” he said. “That will be the docking and charging stations on a hub and spoke network. If a drone needs to go 30 to 40 miles away, it will stop at one of the designated locations to charge and then keep going on its trip before arriving at its final destination.”

Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) is being empowered around Cleveland and throughout the state of Ohio as it increases modality options, improving transportation resiliency and efficiency. It can also increase safety as newer aircraft are designed with redundancy in mind.

The Ohio UAS Center collaborated with ODOT’s Research Program to study the state’s economic impact from advance air mobility. It concluded that Ohio could expect a $13 billion economic impact over 25 years by investing in air mobility infrastructure and technologies, including 15,000 new jobs, $2.5 billion in local, state and federal tax revenues, and 1.6% GDP growth through 2045.

Cleveland Clinic will begin work with government officials in 2024 to ensure compliance with all safety and technical requirements for drone delivery and will start to install the docks and loading portals for the drone system. The system and aircraft are designed with multiple layers of safety, including preflight inspections and real-time monitoring by operations teams.

Phase I focused on pharmacy delivery

Phase I of the drone program for Cleveland Clinic will be focused on pharmacy delivery in 2025. Gates says there are opportunities to include other possibilities like food delivery from Cleveland Clinic’s Food as Medicine Project and opportunities to send products to patients from Cleveland Clinic’s Sleep Disorders Center. Potential lab deliveries between the health system’s facilities and movement of medical supplies as needed is also being explored.

“We’re fine tuning what it will look like in our system with testing in 2024 and deployment in 2025,” he said. “As we get more comfortable with it and identify more use cases, we’ll roll into phases II and III in 2026.”

Cleveland Clinic thought Zipline’s experience with healthcare worldwide provided the best partnership and its next generation P2 drone system helped make the difference. “We felt their offerings and current platform delivering blood products in Ghana, as well as their work in the U.S., will help enable us to bring this to our patients,” Gates said. “We spent time with them developing and refining our use cases and our direct-to-patient home deliveries and some deliveries in between our facilities.”

At-home care a major driver

A major driver of drone usage in healthcare is the move to at-home care. “As we do more with patients there, the efficiency and timeliness of being able to take anything, whether it’s a prescription, lab test or any type of at-home care, and move it in a timely manner between locations or to a patient’s home is critical,” Gates said.

Gates says having a tool that allows Cleveland Clinic to rapidly deploy product is key to internal deliveries too. “We’re starting to aggregate inventory into single locations, so not having to worry about traffic and being able to better predict when something is arriving will help us be more strategic in our stock,” he said.

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