Watch: Smartphone Takes a Wild Ride Through Hospital Pneumatic Tube System

At a Glance

  • UVA researchers discovered some blood samples were being damaged after traveling through the hospital pneumatic tube system.
  • Researchers used a smartphone’s accelerometer to assess the forces acting on blood samples during transit.
  • The results may help other hospitals evaluate their pneumatic tube systems in the future.

If you’ve ever wondered what happens to samples traveling via a hospital’s pneumatic tube system, you’re in luck. Researchers at University of Virginia Health System have captured video of the wild ride by sending smartphones through the tube system. And in so doing, they have developed a tool that could be of importance to hospitals around the world.

The researchers conducted the tests after a small number of blood samples were damaged following travel through UVA hospital’s pneumatic tube system, which has been in use for many years without any problems. Something had clearly gone wrong.

Seeking to understand the source of the problem, the UVA team looked for a diagnostic tool. When they couldn’t find anything designed for the tube system, James H. Harrison Jr., MD, PhD, came up with a daring idea: What if they used a smartphone’s accelerometer to assess the forces acting on the blood samples during transit? There were apps for smartphones that record forces, so it seemed feasible. But could a smartphone withstand the kinds of forces that occur in a pneumatic tube system? There was just one way to find out.

Testing Tube Travel
Having recently upgraded their smartphones, Garrett R. Mullins, PhD, a clinical chemistry postdoctoral fellow, and David Bruns, MD, a professor of pathology, brought in their old smartphones. Mullins strapped his old phone into one of the canisters used to transport blood samples through the tubes and sent it on its way. “I probably wasn’t as worried about it as I should have been,” he recalls.

The phone, however, emerged safely, carrying valuable data on the forces within the tube system. To visualize what happens to a blood sample during transit through the system, Mullins used two smartphones, one to record a video and the other to illuminate the blood sample.

To Mullins’ good fortune, both phones arrived intact. The resulting video shows the blood sample rocketing along, encountering turbulence along the way. The investigations gave the team the data they needed to create a hypothesis about what was happening: Blood samples can be shipped without incident, except through the longest route in the tube system.

Read more about the team’s findings in the scientific journal Clinical Chemistry in a report written by Mullins, Harrison and Bruns.

Watch the video below to get a closer look at what happens inside the hospital’s pneumatic tube system.