Johns Hopkins’ Test Drone Travels 161 Miles to Set Record for Delivery Distance of Clinical Laboratory Specimens

Onboard cooling system ensures samples remain viable for medical laboratory analysis after three-hour flight across Arizona desert

Clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups could soon be receiving blood samples and tissue specimens through the air by medical drone. The technology has been tested successfully in Europe, which Dark Daily reported in July. Now, Johns Hopkins University Medicine (JHUM) has set a record in America for the longest distance drone delivery of viable medical specimens.

In a project to demonstrate the viability of using drones to transport medical laboratory specimens, the Johns Hopkins University team flew a drone with specimens more than 161 miles across the Arizona desert. The goal is to bring autonomous medical delivery drones a step closer to transforming how specimens get transported across long distances, according to a Johns Hopkins press release.

A previous Johns Hopkins study in 2015 proved common and routine blood tests were not affected when medical laboratory specimens were transported in up to 40-minute flights on hobby-sized drones. This latest research provides evidence that unmanned aircraft may be able to successfully and quickly shuttle medical specimens even longer distances between remote hospitals and medical laboratories.

Transporting Clinical Laboratory Samples by Air Can Save Lives

In conducting its most recent study, Johns Hopkins researchers obtained paired chemistry and hematology samples from 21 adults (84 samples in total). One sample from each pair was held at a drone test range in a car with active cooling. Remaining samples were flown for three hours in a drone with a Johns Hopkins-designed onboard payload-cooling system to maintain temperature control in the hot desert environment.

A temperature-controlled specimen transport container (above) designed by the Johns Hopkins University research team ensured the blood samples remained cooled and were viable for testing after the three-hour drone flight in the Arizona heat. The project demonstrated the viability of using drones to transport medical laboratory specimens. (Photo copyright: Johns Hopkins Medicine.)

After the 161-mile flight, all samples were transported 62 miles by car to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., for testing. Flown and not-flown paired samples showed similar results for red blood cell, white blood cell and platelet counts, and sodium levels, among other results. Only glucose and potassium levels revealed minor but statistically significant differences in results.

Pathologist Timothy Amukele, MD, PhD (above), led a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine that set a new distance delivery record for medical drones after successfully transporting human blood samples 161 miles across the Arizona desert. The test flight adds to the growing evidence that unmanned aircraft may be the most effective way to quickly transport blood and other medical samples to clinical laboratories. (Photo copyright: Johns Hopkins Medicine.)

In a report of the findings published in the American Journal of Clinical Pathology (AJCP), the research team concludes that long drone flights at high temperature “do not appear to affect the accuracy of 17 of the 19 test types in this study.” However, they note, “Time- and temperature-sensitive analytes such as glucose and potassium will require good pre-planning and stringent environmental controls to ensure reliable results.”

The John Hopkins team believes their achievement adds to mounting evidence that drone transportation can transform the delivery of clinical laboratory specimens.

“We expect that in many cases, drone transport will be the quickest, safest, and most efficient option to deliver some biological samples to a laboratory from rural or urban settings,” stated Timothy Kien Amukele, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Pathology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the paper’s senior author, in a Johns Hopkins Magazine article.

“Getting diagnostic results far more quickly under difficult conditions will almost certainly improve care and save more lives,” Amukele added.

Full Drone Delivery Network Operating Over Switzerland

Medical drones are rapidly moving from demonstration projects to active use. As Dark Daily previously reported, Switzerland is establishing a delivery network of medical drones in the city of Lugano. In March 2017, drone logistics system developer Matternet, based in Menlo Park, Calif., received authorization from the Swiss Federal Office for Civil Aviation (FOCO) for full operation of drone logistics networks over densely populated areas in Switzerland. Working in partnership with Swiss Post (Switzerland’s postal service) and the Ticino EOC hospital group, Matternet successfully completed roughly 100 drone transport test flights between two of Ticino EOC’s hospitals in Lugano.

Another major player in medical drone delivery is Zipline, a Silicon Valley-based drone delivery company that since October 2016 has flown more than 14,000 flights in Rwanda, delivering 2,600 units of blood. The company’s foothold in Africa expanded in August when Tanzania announced it was partnering with Zipline to launch the “world’s largest drone delivery service to provide emergency on-demand access to critical and life-saving medicines.” Tanzania will establish four distribution centers that will use more than 100 drones to make up to 2,000 flights a day.

The emergence of medical drones not only could speed up diagnoses for patients in remote regions of the world and rural communities, but also could revolutionize anatomic pathology specimen deliveries to clinical laboratories in urban areas by providing a faster, more reliable and lower-cost delivery option than third-party couriers using ground transportation.

—Andrea Downing Peck

Related Information:

Study Sets New Distance Record for Medical Drone Transport

Drone Transport of Chemistry and Hematology Samples Over Long Distances

Using Drones to Transport Blood Samples Could Speed Diagnosis, Treatment

Drone Carrying Blood Samples Travels 160 Miles in Arizona Desert to Set New Record

Matternet Unveils the Matternet Station

Tanzania Announces World’s Largest National Drone Delivery Network Partnering with Zipline

Drones Used to Deliver Clinical Laboratory Specimens in Switzerland

Collaboration between Pathologists, Medical Laboratories, and Hospital Staff Substantially Reduced Hospital-Acquired Infections, AHRQ Reports

Decline in hospital-acquired conditions (HACs) overall since 2010 attributed to increased attention to safety protocols and practices by hospital staff in cooperation with clinical laboratory services

It’s now been almost nine years since the Medicare Program stopped paying hospitals and other providers for certain hospital-acquired conditions (HACs). Included in this list are hospital-acquired infections (HAIs). The goal is to substantially reduce the number of HACs and HAIs, thus improving patient outcomes, while substantially reducing the healthcare costs associated with these conditions.

So, almost nine years into these programs, has there been progress on these goals? This is a question of key interest to Medical laboratories and pathology groups because they have a front-line role in working with clinicians to diagnose and treat HAIs, while also looking to identify the transmission of HAIs within the hospital.

A recent report by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), a division of the US Department of Health and Human Service (HHS), indicates that there has been progress in the goal of reducing HACs. The AHRQ report noted a 21% decline in HACs between 2010 and 2015. Data collected during that time indicates a reduction of more than 3.1 million HACs and nearly 125,000 patient deaths due to HACs.

In 2015 alone, nearly one million fewer HAC incidents occurred. The reduction saved “approximately $28 billion in healthcare costs,” an outcome which, the AHRQ report notes, is the result of increased attention to safety protocols in hospitals and a “period of concerted effort by hospitals throughout the country to reduce adverse events.”

Clinical Pathologists/Laboratories Play Key Role in HAI Prevention

Though many reported incidents are associated with adverse drug events, HAIs have been significantly reduced in recent years due to focused efforts on infection prevention. The report notes that clinical pathologists have become vital players in infection prevention programs, and that increased coordination between hospital medical laboratories and clinicians played a crucial role in the reduction.

Eileen O’Rourke is an Infection Preventionist at the Lankenau Medical Center in Philadelphia. And she has served as a leader and consultant for hospital-based infection prevention programs in Pennsylvania since 1984. In an article on the Wolters Kluwer Pharmacy OneSource blog, O’Rourke noted that successful infection prevention and control requires development of “a highly visible and administratively supported infection prevention and control program with qualified and trained personnel.” Clinical pathologists are part of that support team, providing surveillance, testing, and interpretation of data essential for identifying epidemiological origins of infection and pathogen distribution. And the vital services that clinical laboratories provide to reduce HAIs center on surveillance, prevention, and control.

The chart above was calculated on US Dollars in 2012. Since then, thanks to contributions by medical laboratories and pathologists in collaboration with hospitals, those costs have decreased significantly. (Image copyright:

In an article for Lab Testing Matters, John Daly MD, Chief Medical Officer at the Commission on Office Laboratory Accreditation, and former Director of Clinical Laboratories for the Duke University Health System, highlights the importance of surveillance. He states that it is “an essential element of an infection control program” providing “data to identify infected patients and determine the site of infection” as well as “factors that contributed to the infection.” Medical laboratories must, Daly stresses, provide “easy access to high-quality and timely data and give guidance and support on how to use its resources for epidemiologic purposes.”

Daly argues that medical laboratories function as liaisons to clinical services, working to “improve the quality of specimens sent to the laboratory and promoting appropriate use of cultures and other laboratory tests.” The laboratory should, according to Daly, be involved in all aspects of the infection control programs. This ensures:

  • Proper specimen collection;
  • Accurate and rapid testing; and
  • Accurate reporting of laboratory data.

Laboratory Data Provide ‘Early Warning’ for HAI Surveillance Systems

Robert A. Weinstein, MD, wrote in his 1978 article, “The Role of the Microbiology Laboratory in Surveillance and Control of Nosocomial Infections,” that medical laboratories and pathologists are central to prevention and control of HAIs. Laboratory records, Weinstein remarked, serve as important data sources that can identify early spread of infection, thus becoming an “early warning system” for a potential outbreak of infections. The sampling that laboratories perform identifies not only the strain of infection, but the method by which infection is spread, and the best treatment options. Nearly 40 years later his statements ring truer than ever, as anatomic pathology laboratory data continues to reveal patterns of infection faster and more precisely than ever before.

Sarah Mahoney, PhD, is a research scientist at Navitor Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Mass. In an article published in the American Journal of Clinical Pathology, she states that in surveilling patterns of infection, pathologists also decipher the source of infection. Mahoney wrote that it is “necessary to identify the causative organism” for surveillance and management control of HAIs. She also noted that pathologists must strive to discriminate between “hospital- and community-acquired infection” in order to provide clinicians with guidance for treatment, and to map “infection transmission within a clinical setting.”

Hospitals Rely on Medical Laboratories and Pathologists to Help Reduce HAIs 

The concerted effort to reduce HACs and HAIs was inspired by incentives put forth by the US government. In 2008-2009, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) ceased paying for hospital-acquired conditions, including HAIs. Since that time, hospitals have worked to prevent and better manage HAIs. In the years since those incentives went into effect, hospitals have increasingly relied on medical laboratories and pathologists to provide necessary testing to prevent HAIs.

The CDC’s Antimicrobial Stewardship Programs create a further need for lab professionals to be involved in the identification, prevention, and treatment of HAIs. The core elements of the program state that the role of diagnostic laboratory testing—especially rapid diagnostic tests—is imperative in providing the necessary data needed to combat HAIs. The pressure is on for hospitals to reduce HAIs further to save lives and reduce costs. Thus, there is increased pressure on medical laboratories as well.

In an article in the College of American Pathologists’ online journal Cap Today,

Larry Massie, MD, Professor of Pathology at the University of New Mexico, and Chair of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine for the New Mexico VA Health Care System in Albuquerque, states that turn-around time is crucial for HAIs, but that laboratories often have difficulty keeping up with large volumes of samples. Massie suggests the use of new technologies could speed up turnaround time, particular for large healthcare providers.

The fight to reduce HAIs and HACs is showing significant progress, and clinical laboratories, working in tandem with clinicians and prevention programs, are a fundamental part of the success of HAI reduction. Clinical pathologists and laboratories often are the front line in prevention and management of HAIs, and the work they do in identifying infections is essential in the assessment and control of those infections.

Amanda Warren


Related Information:

National Scorecard on Rates of Hospital-Acquired Conditions 2010 to 2015: Interim Data from National Efforts to Make Health Care Safer

How Hospitals Can Reduce Hospital-Acquired Infections

HAI Data and Statistics

Hospital Acquired Infection: Molecular Study and Infection Control Guidelines

Rapid Sequencing and Characterization of Pathogens in Hospital-Acquired Infections

The Role of the Microbiology Laboratory in Surveillance and Control of Nosocomial Infections

Core Elements of Hospital Antibiotic Stewardship Program

Pressure’s on to Halt Nosocomial Infections

Hospital Acquired Infections

Surveillance of Hospital-acquired Infections: A Model for Settings with Resource Constraints

The Laboratory and Infection Control

Role of the Microbiologist in Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology

Study Finds Occupying Hospital Bed Previously Used by Patient Receiving Antibiotics Increases Odds of Developing C.diff Infection

For Embattled Medical Laboratory Company Theranos, Bad News Keeps on Coming After Two Federal Inspections Show Problems in Certain Lab Practices

High rates of variability from one drop to another raise questions about the reliability of point of care testing equipment and companies that collect lab specimens only with finger sticks

Since last fall, one news report after another has come out with bad news for Theranos Inc., the high-profile medical laboratory company. The reports have ranged from dissatisfaction among Theranos’ partners, such as Walgreens and Capital BlueCross, to failed inspection reports from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

In response, the embattled lab company in Palo Alto, Calif., has maintained that it is doing everything it can to correct any deficiencies in its clinical laboratory testing methods and to ensure its partners that its processes are scientifically sound and its methods valid. (more…)

Noted Pathologist George Lundberg, M.D., Sees Opportunity for Pathology Profession to be Leaders in Diagnostics during the Era of Genomics

Noted pathologist encourages pathology profession to step up and assert leadership in clinical diagnostics as it enters the era of genomics-based medicine

Pathologists, embrace molecular testing or become irrelevant. In essence, that’s the message from pathology maven George D. Lundberg, M.D..

Lundberg is well known to pathologists in America. A board-certified pathologist himself, Lundberg served 17 years as Editor in Chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). He continues to write and blog for a variety of healthcare publications and Web sites.

That means Lundberg has watched the evolution of medicine from a unique perspective for an extended period of time. The fact that he recently issued a clear and unambiguous call to action for the pathology profession means that pathologists  and clinical laboratory managers should take heed. (more…)