Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital (RSMH) sits just off of U.S. Route 13 on Virginia’s largely rural Eastern Shore. It’s a major healthcare hub near the small communities of Onley, Onancock, Tasley and Melfa. A 70-mile chain of mostly uninhabited barrier islands, some no wider than a sandbar, stretch along the easternmost part of the Shore, and to the west sits the famously remote fishing village of Tangier Island which, at last count boasted a population of around 400.
If you look at a satellite layer map of the Shore, you can see tidal flats and lagoons, the small shopping centers and family cemeteries, and mosaic-like patches of farmland. From the air, things seem rather idyllic, but on the ground, multiple healthcare reports tell a different story.
Prominent among the them is a report published in 2022 by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Population Health Institute, which ranked Accomack and Northampton counties among the least healthy in Virginia. Though the study looked at the physical environment, social and economic issues, health behaviors and data relating to health outcomes, an increasingly older demographic could well be a factor in some of the Shore’s low scores: Accomack has 25.2% of the population age 65 or older and Northampton has 28.6%, compared to 16.3% for Virginia as a whole.
Mobility issues and lack of reliable transportation to and from pharmacies and healthcare providers is a challenge many older adults face, yet for multiple demographics living in the Shore’s more remote areas, access to prescription medications, first aid supplies, home health care necessities and lab tests has long been a challenge. For those still managing to craft a tenuous life on Tangier Island, the struggle is especially real. Lack of timely access to health care and prescription medicines contributes to negative health outcomes.
But things may be looking up thanks to the efforts of an innovative, regional partnership. Working together, Riverside Health System, DroneUp, the Virginia Institute for Spaceflight & Autonomy (VISA) at Old Dominion University (ODU), the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission, and the Virginia Innovation Partnership Corporation (VIPC), will soon launch a medical cargo drone prescription delivery service to patients who live on the Eastern Shore and adjacent Tangier Island. Equipped with electronic speed and flight controllers, cameras and antennae, the drones will extend the reach of physicians and pharmacists to better serve their communities. They’re little physician’s assistants with propellors.
“VIPC’s mission is to support game-changing market development initiatives, such as this medical drone delivery service for Riverside’s patients on the Eastern Shore,” says Tracy Tynan, the director of the Virginia Unmanned Systems Center at VIPC. “VIPC concentrates on investing seed funding during the early stages of technological innovation to stimulate and accelerate economic growth, which increases vital resources for communities throughout the state.”
Once the project is implemented, medical drones and their cargo will take off from a pad at RSMH, delivering medications right to a patient’s doorstep or backyard. As drones depart RSMH, the patients and Riverside’s care teams will be able to track delivery of medications in real time. Think: airborne Ubers for meds.
“We are always looking for innovative ways to provide care for our patients,” says Sally Hartman, Senior Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Riverside. “This partnership provides us with the opportunity to support patients in more rural communities by improving access to prescription medications with fast at-home delivery.”
There are, as one would expect, some pharmaceutical exceptions. Nick Chuquin, president of RSMH says that the hospital won’t be delivering controlled substances or medications that require refrigeration. Initially, the deliveries will focus on medications that help manage hypertension, a condition that’s endemic to the region.
VISA’s role in the project centers around modeling, analysis and simulation as well as workforce development. Located on the Shore, VISA is part of the larger, ODU Virginia Modeling, Analysis, and Simulation Center (VMASC) organization and has been instrumental in building and cultivating the partnership from the very beginning. Of the projects impact, David Bowles, executive director of VISA weighs in. “The drone delivery project truly embodies our mission to ignite growth, cultivate talent, and spur innovation at ODU, in our region, and in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
The forward-thinking drone delivery project is truly a regional labor of love—with four of the partner organizations based in Coastal Virginia and the fifth (VIPC) based in Richmond. The project also demonstrates the ways in which collaborations between different ecosystems of talent—academia, industry and government—can solve real-world problems, propel innovation, stimulate workforce development and promote entrepreneurship in emerging technologies.
So somewhere on Tangier Island, in the not-too-distant future, a patient unable to make the hour-long ferry journey to RSMH’s pharmacy will watch as a humming mechanical PA drops off a box of much-needed medications near the front porch.