Drones to speed UK hospital transport of patient lab samples

UK drones hospital transport

A trio of hospitals in the UK’s northwest is set to begin receiving blood and other patient lab samples by drones using designated air corridors over Morecambe Bay, with the objective of cutting transport time of using frequently clogged roads surrounding the large estuary.

According to the Morecambe Bay RPAS Transit Route created to facilitate the project, use of drones to transport patient samples between hospitals in the area straddling the UK’s Lancashire and Cumbria counties is now set to begin in October. Those UAVs will operate at 250 feet in airspace dedicated to their flights, and are expected to cut over an hour off the time currently required to shuttle blood and other samples between heath centers for analysis. A fourth hospital is expected to be added sometime after an initial 90-day trial period.

ReadOfficials seek to link three UK hospitals by drone supply shuttles 

Launch of drones for transporting patient lab samples has been a long time coming to the area. Initial studies began last year, followed by a second phase in January that hoped to have test UAVs flying by June. Thanks to a $1.7 million grant from the UK Research and Innovation organization’s Future Flight division – which supports new, sustainable aerial tech and vehicle development to move goods and people – a 20-month observation period of the UAV network can take to the skies this autumn.

Deployment of drones in the transport scheme seeks to slash the time needed to get lab samples to analysis facilities, and thereby speed transmissions of results doctors need to treat patients. Current road options involve vans making sequential stops at hospitals located around Morecambe Bay, covering some 320 miles in often heavy traffic each day. Flights of UAVs to avoid those jams, officials say, will cut that time dramatically.

By way of example, Phil Woodford, University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay National Health Service (NHS) Foundation Trust corporate affairs director, says travel between the Royal Lancaster Infirmary and Furness General Hospital involved in the operation will be cut from between 60-90 minutes to around 15-20. That reduced wait, he adds, “has the potential to aid clinical decision making with the removal of unnecessary transport delays.”

The project will kick off as Scotland prepares for what it calls the UK’s first nationwide drone system to transport medical supplies and patient samples between facilities. UAVs used in the Morecambe Bay program, meanwhile, are made by Skylift – the same company operating aerial deliveries of chemotherapy treatments from southern England to the Isle of Wight.

Read moreIsle of Wight to test drone deliveries of chemotherapy 

Officials involved in the pending Morecambe Bay trial flights see their project potentially linking with those of other NHS organizations across the UK to make drone transport of critical medical supplies and lab samples common practice in the near future.

“This important project will revolutionize deliveries across a specific part of Lancashire and South Cumbria and provide valuable insight into how this can be expanded across a larger pathology partnership network,” says Anthony Rowbottom, clinical director for pathology at Lancashire Teaching Hospitals. “If successful, (it) could provide scope for branching into other NHS services and, in the not too distant future, should be seen as standard practice. In the long-term, with the right ambition and direction, why not aspire towards potentially extending drone use to home delivery for patients.”


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