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Issues of the Environment: New delivery drones are one of Michigan Medicine's latest environmentally-friendly initiatives

Dana Habers
Michigan Medicine
Dana Habers


  • Michigan Medicine will deployZipline’s new home delivery service to bring prescriptions to patients around Washtenaw County beginning next year. 
  • Zipline’s slim dual-purpose docks, chargers and loading portals will integrate into Michigan Medicine’s specialty care pharmacy in Dexter, which is slated to open later this year. With a 10-mile service radius per dock or up to 24 miles one way, and several docks being installed across the region, the P2 Zips will be capable of delivering the many prescriptions that Michigan Medicine fills and processes each day.
  • Unlike car and truck deliveries today, Michigan Medicine patients and patient care teams also will be able to track their packages in real-time and know the delivery time down to seconds using the Zipline app or website.
  • The new home delivery service will use Zipline’s next-generation platform, which uses autonomous, electric drones to make fast, extremely quiet, ultraprecise deliveries to rural, suburban and even dense urban areas across the region. Zipline’s home delivery service can deliver to areas as small as a patio table, is expected to deliver up to seven times as fast as traditional automobile delivery, completing 10-mile deliveries in about 10 minutes. Source: *directly quoted* https://www.michiganmedicine.org/news-release/michigan-medicine-deploy-ziplines-drone-service-delivery-patient-prescriptions)
  • Michigan Medicine will be among the first organizations to use Zipline’s next generation platform, which is nearly inaudible and designed to sound like the wind rustling leaves. Zips can fly and deliver autonomously day or night and through all kinds of weather. This drone technology has been tested on nearly half a million deliveries in other locations, and it has been safe.
  • Drone delivery is part of Michigan Medicines overall sustainability efforts. In 2023, the hospital and research system deepened its commitment to environmental initiatives that target climate change and reducing pollution and waste. Michigan Medicine plans to inspire a more comprehensive and engaging Environmental Sustainability & Carbon Neutrality program. Some of the highlights include: 

    • Fulfill the 2025 sustainability goals previously set in 2011 in partnership with the U-M campus which includes greenhouse gas reductions, reducing carbon output per passenger trip, waste reduction, increased local food purchases, protecting the Huron River water quality and investments in sustainability culture programs.
    • Support new carbon neutrality goals set in 2021 which requires all greenhouse gas emissions attributed to our institution be eliminated or offset by investments in carbon credits or carbon dioxide removal projects. 
    • Maintain and build on early successes, including alternative transportation options, continued greening of the operating room sites, sustainable food sources and virtual care.
    • Aspire toward future success through innovative and forward-thinking initiatives such as the Green Anesthesia Initiative to remove harmful anesthetic gases from the atmosphere and “Platinum” level designation under the Leadership in Energy Efficient Design (LEED) Certification program in the D. Dan and Betty Kahn Health Care Pavilion. Future success will also require collaboration with other organizations, including plans with DuPont to implement a new medical plastics recycling initiative, as well a new arrangement with Daniels Health to establish a new reusable Sharps container program to reduce significant levels of landfill waste and improve workforce safety. (Source: *directly quoted* https://mmheadlines.org/2023/01/go-blue-live-green-michigan-medicine-deepens-commitment-to-sustainability/#:~:text=U%2DM%20Health%2C%20in%20partnership%20with,from%20purchased%20electricity%20(Scope%202)


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And I'd like to welcome you to another edition of Issues of the Environment. Now, our conversation today is going to lift us to the skies over Washtenaw County. University of Michigan Health is working with a company called Zipline. And in the not-so-distant future, you're going to see drones delivering prescription drugs to patients in the area. It's all fascinating, and we wanted to find out more. So, we found the perfect person to talk to. Dana Habers is chief operating officer of pharmacy services and chief innovation officer for University of Michigan Health. And, Dana, thank you so much for making time for us today.

Dana Habers: Thank you for having me, David.

David Fair: When you started your career path, did you foresee sitting down and having a long conversation about drones as part of your professional mission?

Dana Habers: Great question. Never say never.

David Fair: I imagine that this is something that's been in the works for quite a while. These things don't just suddenly pop up. And here we are--the future is now. How did this agreement or partnership with Zipline come about?

Dana Habers: Thank you for asking. So, Zipline has surfaced as a world leader in drone delivery. There are many organizations working on this similar technology, but we really appreciated the underlying common goals of our companies. We both are working to improve the health of our communities and, of course, doing so with a more responsible environmental approach.

David Fair: There are going to be autonomous electric drones that are making medicine deliveries. How accurate have those drones been through the testing process to make sure that medicine gets to where it's supposed to go?

Dana Habers: Well, we're excited to have Zipline come work in the beautiful state of Michigan where we have many trees and lakes. So, we'll be navigating new territory here for sure. In their testing, however, they have a strong track record, and it's another really important common goal for us to deliver medications safely and timely to our patients. So, we'll have extensive testing ahead of us, but we're excited to work with a company that's really dedicated to safety as a top priority.

David Fair: And once it's taken flight, I would assume that no opioids or narcotics will be allowed to be a part of the program.

Dana Habers: Correct. Yup. We're focusing primarily on our specialty medications, which are time-sensitive, need to get to patients in a reasonable amount of time. We have very important medication regimens for some of our sickest and most vulnerable patients. So, those drugs also typically require some sort of cold chain or temperature management throughout the course of their transit and drone delivery being a much faster delivery model than your traditional courier or UPS, FedEx truck, of course, would be another appealing component of this program.

David Fair: You are listening to 89 one WEMU's Issues of the environment. And today, we're having a conversation with Dana Habers, who is working with University of Michigan Health. And we're talking about the upcoming drone program that will deliver medications to patients throughout the area. When the service begins in earnest, Dana, how many patients do you anticipate you'll be able to service?

Dana Habers: We anticipate starting small. We have a radius limitation of about ten miles from our new Dexter facility. So, we'll start in Washtenaw County. Thankfully, we have access to a really phenomenal group of patients who have either family members who come to us for their care, who have personally come to us for their care. We did an early survey of that group for our Office of Patient Experience and Patient advisor. They indicate 30% would be willing to try it with us--an early adoption rate. So, eventually, however, our goal is to prove that this will be a really positive patient experience. It's obviously a much faster mode of getting medications that patients need after they see their doctors. We hope that will expand over time.

David Fair: And just on a practical level, with the potential for so many drones flying overhead on a daily basis, are we going to have an increase in noise pollution in the area?

Dana Habers: This is another reason we really loved Zipline for our partnership. Their entire design is meant to be a very low intrusive model. So, the zipline itself--Zip, they call it--hovers high and up above. And I've had the privilege of hearing this personally. I actually could overhear a cow mooing in the distance and an airplane in the air over the buzz of the drone itself. So, the delivery model is intended to just be very silent. You really don't even know it's there. And so, short answer, no. I don't think that will be a problem with this partnership. It'll be an exciting thing to start to see play out in real life.

David Fair: And I would assume these are relatively low flying drones. But will there be a need to work with Ann Arbor Municipal or Willow Run Airport to ensure that airspace is safe for all forms of flying vehicle?

Dana Habers: Absolutely. That is a really important priority. They work through the FAA ,and there are several regulatory requirements that they need. We also are very sensitive to the impact that this has on our Survival Flight teams. We provide a service statewide, and that's a really important thing to not disrupt. We want to make sure that these things can all coexist. So, absolutely, there will be defined pathways and highly regulated requirements around the way that the drone gets from our facility to the patient's home.

David Fair: Once again, we're talking with Dana Habers on 89 one WEMU. She serves as chief operating officer of pharmacy services and is chief innovation officer for University of Michigan Health and our guest on Issues of the Environment. Now, this is probably not news to you, but there are many that view the health care industry with a somewhat cynical eye, believing very little gets changed or introduced, unless it provides higher profit margin. Is this going to be a more costly program for patients?

Dana Habers: Absolutely not. Actually, it will save costs for us as a delivery mode. It also lowers the cost of care overall. And I'll mention, too, that health care industry contributes as much as eight and a half percent of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions. So, we are deeply committed. We're an active advocate for improving environmental sustainability and making important strides. We're also on a continuous quest to lower the cost of care and make sure that patients across the state have access to us, regardless of their ability to pay. This is one of the aspects we can do is is lower that cost to be able to make it more accessible. The service for patients to receive delivery right now does not cost them anything out of pocket. We'll be providing this to them for free.

David Fair: Now, it may cost jobs in that those who do make deliveries through the community are no longer necessary. At the same time, I would anticipate with the launch of an expansive service like this, it will create jobs. Has there been any kind of assessment as to overall economic impact?

Dana Habers: We are working towards that. Our launch date is going to be 2024, so we have a lot of work ahead of us to fully vet. I think, what I would say, though, is there is an expectation that we won't replace 100% of our deliveries. So, there will be limitations in certain parts of the area if there are heavy trees or things like that to consider. You know, we believe will continue to need to rely on courier and truck delivery as well. But to the degree that we can transition, I think it will be improved carbon footprint for us overall.

David Fair: And that plays into the larger sustainability efforts and initiatives that are already underway at the University of Michigan. How does that help the U of M attain and achieve those goals?

Dana Habers: Our partnership with Zipline is a really integral part. We have an overall environmental sustainability plan. Each delivery of the prescription to the patient's home reduces--or produces--97% fewer CO2 emissions than a combustion engine vehicle, which is the primary mode that we use for transport of the drugs today. Additionally, this opens opportunities for us because of its efficiency to look at packaging materials that we use. So, our medications were shipping require, I mentioned, are temperature sensitive. So, packaging for home deliveries is designed to ensure the integrity of the drug throughout transit. And with drone delivery significantly cutting down on the time a prescription will spend in transit, we can package it for 15 minutes instead of our current standard of 48 hours. And that alone allows us to use less styrofoam fewer ice gel packs, although that's a lot nicer for our patients since we're not filling up their leases with excess packaging materials. And I think that fits in. Michigan Medicine has been an advocate for improving sustainability. We've made strides in energy conservation, waste reduction, material recycling, and food composting and frame that in three efforts. Scope one is our goal to eliminate emissions resulting from direct on-campus sources by 2040. Goal two is achieving carbon neutrality for emissions from indirect sources resulting from purchased electricity by 2025. And three is establishing net zero goals for emissions categories resulting from indirect sources, like commuting, food procurement, and university-sponsored travel also by 2025. And so, this fits into a broader plan that includes both the health system and the university more broadly.

David Fair: Well, that's exciting. And, as you mentioned, this is targeted for a 2024 launch date. It's another advancement in the delivery of medical services. Now, you are totally ingrained in this process. Based on your strategic planning, what is the next advancement we might experience as consumers?

Dana Habers: Great question. We're opening a lot of doors. And as you described earlier, these things take time to set and understand and get to this point. We aspire. It's part of our culture. It's part of our guiding principles towards innovative and forward-thinking initiatives. And some of this is internal, and some of it is partnerships. I'll provide a couple of other examples. So, it includes the Green Anesthesia Initiative to remove harmful anesthetic gases from the atmosphere. We are working towards platinum level designation under the Leadership in Energy Efficient Design—LEED—certification program for the new inpatient tower that's under construction today. We are also collaborating with other organizations to implement a new medical plastics recycling initiative. We've established a new reusable sharps container program to reduce significant levels of landfill waste and improve our workforce safety. So, there are many examples of this. It's very exciting to be a part of it.

David Fair: And it's going to be exciting to follow. And I look forward to our next conversation about one of these very topics.

Dana Habers: Wonderful.

David Fair: That is Dana Habers. She is chief operating officer of pharmacy services and chief innovation officer for University of Michigan Health. She's been our guest on Issues of the Environment. This weekly feature is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, and you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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