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The Trick to Achieving Universal Health Care? Drones

The logistics of today’s health care system “really only serve the ‘golden billion’ people on the planet,’ argues Zipline International CEO Keller Rinaudo. Millions more die from a lack of care.

Most people think of drone delivery as science fiction—or at least an idea limited to ordering takeout for dinner. But it’s not so, Rinaudo told the audience Tuesday at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference in San Diego. His California company uses the diminutive aircraft to deliver medical products in countries where there’s a distinct lack of infrastructure. And it works, he said.

Today, Rwanda is delivering 60% of the national blood supply outside of its capital, Kigali, using Zipline drones. About half of that blood is being used for mothers suffering from postpartum hemorrhaging.

The drones zip by and drop blood from as high as 10 meters up. They’re precise enough to deliver to a mailbox set up by a resident and don’t need a runway to take off and land.

Conventional health systems balance access with waste—a result of “last mile” service. After two years of collecting data while operating at a national scale, Rinaudo said Zipline was able to help Rwanda reduce its waste from 6% to 0% and still increase access. (The company made nearly 4,000 lifesaving emergency deliveries in the last year alone, he says.)

Encouraged by its Rwanda results, Zipline plans to build four distribution centers in Ghana, more than 2,000 miles to its east. The first center arrives on April 24, Rinaudo said, and is a step toward making medical products available to 20 million people.

For Rinaudo, drones are a way for a nation to access universal health care almost overnight. Call it a golden idea.

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