SAN FRANCISCO — Your doctor just got in the Uber dispatching business.
The ride-hailing company Thursday announced the launch of Uber Health, a desktop platform for healthcare providers that allows doctors to provide rides for patients who might otherwise miss their appointments because they can’t get to them.
Uber Health has been in testing since July with around 100 physicians and hospitals. Rival Lyft also has been working with healthcare providers over the past few years. Both tech startups have been looking for ways to grow their business with companies.
The benefits to doctors and hospitals of using ride hailing apps — which replace taxis and medical shuttles, but not ambulances — include on-demand scheduling, destination tracking and lower costs, said one doctor who had tried Uber’s service.
Nationally, missed appointments cost healthcare providers $150 billion a year, with no-show rates as high as 30%, according to SCI Solutions, which provides IT services to the healthcare industry.
“In the past, we used taxis, but you had to hand out a voucher in person, you had no idea where the person might be going and it cost 20% to 40% more,” says Chris Needham, director of Member Health and Wellness at Renown Health, which serves urban and rural patients in northern Nevada and has been testing Uber Health since October.
Needham says hospital staff assess which patients are at risk of missing critical appointments and provides them with pick-up and drop-off rides at the hospital’s expense.
Another benefit of the service is helping health care providers meet patient care goals that can factor into how a facility scores with regulators.
“Obviously helping patients is a good thing, but there are also financial ramifications of making sure your level of care is consistent,” says Gartner analyst Tom Handler. “If you get penalized (for not following up with patients), there’s incentive for you to track them better, and sometimes that means helping them get to you.”
There’s one patient contingent that likely would find issue with the average Uber ride: people in wheelchairs.
“Uber doesn’t really offer that yet,” says Needham. “That would make a difference.”
Earlier this week Disability Rights Advocates filed a class action lawsuit against Uber challenging the popular ride-sharing service’s lack of transportation for those in wheelchairs.
“Based on our investigation, in most major (U.S.) cities wheelchair access for Uber users is either rare or non-existent,” says Melissa Riess, staff attorney at Disability Rights Advocates. Reiss said Uber has not yet responded to the lawsuit. “This is not an unsolvable problem.”
The ride hailing company does offer the option of ordering Wheelchair Accessible Vans, so-called UberWAV, via pilot programs in London, Toronto, Austin and Chicago, according to Uber’s website.
Uber and Lyft’s move into the healthcare space represents yet another way in which the ride hailing companies are elbowing traditional transportation providers, from taxis to mass transit.
Cities are just starting to understand their impact. The low price of a ride on the rivals can mean consumers opt for a short Uber or Lyft ride instead of walking or taking the bus, thereby clogging urban streets with cars and cutting into public transportation use.
They’re also swapping Uber and Lyft for other staples of transit. A University of Kansas survey of ambulance usage rates in 43 states found a 7% decline was explained by a growth in ride hailing.
Uber Health, or for that matter Lyft Concierge, are not designed to be used as ambulance alternatives.
Doctors and hosptials using the service are presented with a desktop interface that asks for patient information and as well as billing code details (medical professionals wanting to bill patients for the Uber ride would have to find a way to charge them). Multiple rides can be ordered at once, and rides can be scheduled in advance.
Patients waiting in doctors’ offices for their ride would either receive a text message with the driver’s information and ETA, or, if they don’t own a smartphone, are given a paper printout of those details by staff members.
Renown Health’s Needham estimates that fewer than 10% of patients meet the criteria for a free ride.
“Mainly, we are looking to help older folks, people with chronic issues, and people who maybe work a few jobs and can barely spare the time for their health,” he says. “A ride to your primary care provider may not seem like a big deal, but if you’re on a lot of meds and get confused, it can mean the difference between going and not going.”
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