Uber, but for Getting to the Hospital

The ride-sharing company is launching a service that allows doctors to hail cars for their patients.

OLGA KHAZAN March 1, 2018 

The ride-sharing company Uber is launching a new service that will allow hospitals and doctors to book rides for their patients.

The new Uber Health dashboard, which has been tested by a beta group of about 100 hospitals and doctors’ offices since July, will allow medical and administrative staff to either call an Uber to the office to drive a specific patient home, or to dispatch an Uber to the patient’s house, with the option to schedule it up to 30 days in advance.

The patient need not have the Uber app or even a working smartphone: The dashboard comes with a printable sheet allowing a doctor to circle the incoming Uber’s car color and write down the license plate.

With the dashboard, the drivers would see the patient’s name and phone number. The patient would get a text when their car arrived; if they have the regular Uber app, it would not be billed.

The new tools are compliant with HIPAA, the medical-privacy law, the company says. Uber Health’s data is “cordoned off” from the rest of Uber’s data, and only a handful of employees are given access, says Jay Holley, the head of partnerships at Uber Health.

Citing studies, the company says missed doctors’ appointments cost the health-care system $150 billion each year, and that 3.6 million Americans miss or delay appointments due to a lack of reliable transportation.

Holley is not aware of any Medicaid or insurance plan that reimbursed for Uber rides. He says many hospitals are paying for the rides out of their own budgets, finding it cheaper than the cost of missed appointments. Uber Health’s prices are similar to those of Uber in the same city, but the company did not have an average price for the Uber Health rides.

Pro Staff Physical Therapy, which has seven locations in New Jersey, began using Uber Health last summer. Many of the practice’s patients must come in two or three times per week, and many can’t drive because they’ve been injured, says Carlos Ospina, the chief clinical officer at Pro Staff. The Ubers are cheaper than cabs, he says, and Pro Staff covers the cost for patients. The only hiccup came from some of the practice’s less tech-savvy, older patients. They weren’t sure about the service at first, but they warmed to it with time and explanations from staff, he said.

Arun Sundararajan, a business professor at New York University and the author of The Sharing Economy, says it’s a good move for Uber to enter health care, which makes up one-sixth of the economy. The only pitfall, he says, might be in working out liability. How much is the driver responsible if, say, the patient faints in the back seat? “The burden on the platform and the health-care provider to ensure against something going wrong with the patient is a lot higher than if the patient is calling the car themselves,” Sundararajan says. “The fact that they are only launching this service now and not in the past is because it’s likely taken a while to work out the details.”

Many doctors call cabs for their patients, but Uber is available in about 250 U.S. cities and is sometimes cheaper than a metered taxi. Holley says that it would be up to doctors to determine if a patient was well enough to take an Uber, rather than an ambulance, and that if something happened to the patient in transit, the Uber driver should just call 911.

Partnering with hospitals might also introduce Uber to new customers. As recently as 2015, just 15 percent of Americans had used ride-hailing apps, and a third had never heard of them. The apps are mainly popular among higher-income people and college graduates, a Pew survey found. Conceivably, some of these patients, safely delivered to their homes by Uber Health, will go on to download the regular app for themselves.

The announcement comes after a string of scandals involving Uber in recent years. Just since January 2017, Uber has settled a lawsuit alleging that it misled drivers about earnings, and it faced sexual-harassment claims. It’s also been reported that the company spied on drivers, city agencies, and certain users. In November, it admitted to paying hackers $100,000 to cover up a data breach that affected 57 million accounts, disclosing names, emails, and phone numbers. (“None of this should have happened, and I will not make excuses for it,” said Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi in a statement regarding the breach and cover-up. “While I can’t erase the past, I can commit on behalf of every Uber employee that we will learn from our mistakes.”)

“Uber has developed a reputation for pushing the limits of the law in its pursuit of dominating the ride-hailing market,” is how The Wall Street Journal described the company last fall. In 2015, a survey found that Lyft had become a more trusted ride-hailing app than Uber.

It remains to be seen if allying with the more pure-seeming health world will repair Uber’s reputation—or how much its brand is even suffering. After all, according to a spokeswoman, the company still has 75 million riders and 3 million drivers globally.

“We have a short memory as consumers,” the Georgetown University business professor Marlene Towns told the AP last fall, regarding Uber. “We tend to be, if not forgiving, forgetful.”

We might be especially forgiving if we happen to be spared a hefty ambulance bill.

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