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Upstate Medical University using drones to transport medications

Jeff Causey, founder of Causey Aviation Unmanned, shows off one of the drones being used with Upstate Medical University/
Ellen Abbott
Jeff Causey, founder of Causey Aviation Unmanned, shows off one of the drones being used with Upstate Medical University

Upstate Medical University is showing off the way drones are being used to transport medications to patients.

Moving medication to patients is only the tip of the tech iceberg, that will help the hospital deal with chronic staffing shortages.

You see it before you hear it —a black spot in the distance, rising out of a tree line. Then, a buzzing sound grows as the drone moves closer, hovering over a drop sight and lowering a bright yellow bag on a rope. A hospital employee picks it up and patients at Upstate’s Community Hospital campus get anything from antibiotics to insulin in a matter of minutes.

A drone in action
Ellen Abbott
A drone in action

The 35-pound drones are owned by Causey Aviation Unmanned, a drone outfit out of Charlotte, North Carolina. CEO Jeff Causey said it’s a tremendously efficient way of doing things.

"We’re only using a few cents worth of electricity to move these prescriptions," Causey said. "There’s no reason to make a patient wait. Just load a prescription and send it over."

For the pharmacy department at Upstate, this is a game-changer. Eric Balotin, director of the retail pharmacy, said before the drones, the prescriptions needed to be hand delivered from downtown to the community campus, at a time when the department is having a hard time hiring staff.

"It’s 10 minutes each way," Balotin said. "That’s 20 more minutes of efficiency we can build into the system. If we do 20 deliveries a day, that’s basically a full-time employee that we can basically save."

For Upstate, the upside is an increasing reliance on technology that can free health care professionals to spend more time with patients. Hospital CEO Robert Corona said nurses spend a third of their time fetching supplies or doing paperwork, actions that can be replaced by technology.

"We now have functional robots in food and nutrition and functional robots moving supplies around the hospital," Corona said. "That is going to continue to grow. That gives them back a third of their time and as we get more efficient using things like artificial intelligence they don’t have to spend as much time doing administrative paperwork."

Corona said a pilot program is underway to connect the different campuses in the Upstate system. He said it’s particularly helpful getting prescriptions to the community campus on the city’s west side.

"We can just fly the drones over the city and land here and have the medications here," Corona said. "We have a bigger pharmacy downtown, so if we have a drug down there that someone needs up here, the drone is an efficient way to fly it up.”

Corona said Upstate currently delivers medications to a homeless shelter. The next step on the drone front, using them to deliver prescriptions to patients' homes, as well as the Upstate Cancer Center in Verona, which is expected to open later this year. Causey said they're still watching the infancy of a technology.

"These drones have some limitations," Causey said. "But just like a cellphone transformed our lives in 20 years, these drones are going to transform our lives in terms of health care, in terms of food delivery and lots of other things."

The project comes as the hospital is using more tech to give short-staffed health care professionals more time to tend to patients — including robots that deliver anything from medical supplies to meals, and artificial intelligence that can read X-rays or pathology reports.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.