Under the radar: Uber launches health platform to get patients to and from appointments–whether or not they have the app or a smartphone!

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The News:

UBER Technologies Inc. (San Francisco) is launching a new business line called Uber Health that will provide a ride-hailing platform available specifically to healthcare providers, letting clinics, hospitals, rehab centers and more easily assign rides for their patients and clients from a centralized dashboard–without requiring that the rider even have the Uber app, or a smartphone.

The Uber Health value proposition is like that of UberCENTRAL, the company’s ride-booking service aimed at business customers who want to provide rides for their clientele. But it’s also tailored for the healthcare industry (including dental and nursing care) with HIPAA standards compliance, as well as the ability to use the service on the client-side from even just a landline.

Uber Health’s creation was rooted in some alarming statistics about patient care and healthcare client absentee rates, according to TechCrunch. Uber Health manager Chris Weber explained that some 3.6 million Americans miss medical appointments owing to a lack of available, reliable transportation. Plus, he noted that nearly a third of patients fail to show up to medical appointments every year in total.

“Uber’s endeavors into healthcare trace back to 2014, when Uber first offered on-demand flu shots in large markets across the US,” Weber said, regarding the genesis of the focus on health within Uber. “Since then there have been similar efforts throughout the world, from diabetes and thyroid testing in India, to subsidized rides for breast-cancer screening in the US, to many more. That said, all of these efforts have been pop-ups.”

Simply put, Uber Health is designed to reduce the number of missed appointments by allowing clinics and other medical facilities to book rides on their clients’ behalf, using a simple web dashboard where the the client name, number, pick-up and top-off location are then input, the appropriate selection is made from Uber’s range of ride-hailing vehicle type options.

Steve’s Take:

Okay. I must give credit where credit is due. Uber has come up with a great idea where everyone involved in their new ride-hailing business line wins.

Steve's Take: The potential for ride-sharing in #healthcare could be huge, with the non-emergency medical #transportation market estimated at $3 billion a year. Click To Tweet

Why? Because Uber is a very smart company, despite some rough edges in its formative phase. Not that I’m completely clueless, but this concept struck me as brilliant. Thinking critically and with the help of Olga Khagan at The Atlantic, let’s tease out the pros and cons of this service and see where we come out.

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 Uber Health 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 company says the new tools are compliant with HIPAA, the medical-privacy law, according to Khagan. 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.

Lack of transportation or other conveyance-related problems have often been cited as a major barrier to healthcare access, says Modern Healthcare. An estimated 3.6 million Americans miss their healthcare appointments every year because of unreliable transportation, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Evidence has shown the healthcare industry loses approximately $150 billion per year due to missed appointments. Yes, that’s “billion” with a “b.”

“While we certainly don’t expect to take on that entire $150 billion number in our first efforts, we’re pretty confident we can start making an impact by reducing the number of missed appointments due to transportation,” Uber’s Chris Weber said.

Healthcare providers will be able to schedule rides for patients through a digital dashboard that would be accessible online or integrated into a facility’s existing system. The service can transport to patients as far as 300 miles, and drivers could be any one of Uber’s more than 750,000 drivers.

“This is your standard set of Uber drivers that are out there,” said Holley. “Drivers are not given any additional information that leads them to conclude an Uber health trip was any different form a standard Uber trip, out of respect for patient privacy,” he added.

Providers are able to call for multiple rides at once using the dashboard. Riders can either get a text message or phone call with trip details.

The potential for ride-sharing in healthcare could be huge, with the non-emergency medical transportation market estimated at $3 billion a year.

Studies have shown ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft tend to be used more often by urban residents, who are younger and more affluent. A 2016 analysis by the Pew Research Center found 26% of Americans with an annual household income of $75,000 or more had used a ride-hailing service compared to 10% of those living in households with an annual income of less than $30,000.

But the bulk of Uber Health’s patients would most likely be older, lower-income individuals.

Collaborating with hospitals might also introduce Uber to new customers. As recently as 2015, just 15% of Americans had used ride-hailing apps. 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. “While I can’t erase the past, I can commit on behalf of every Uber employee that we will learn from our mistakes.”

In 2015, a survey found that Lyft had become a more trusted ride-hailing app than Uber.

Bottom Line:

I jog to the pool at the local Y several times a week to run in the deep end where there’s no impact on my legs. It’s great therapy that refreshes and resets the body, unlike the grueling, regular street running with which I clearly am obsessed.

After the pool workout I usually take Lyft back to my apartment. I’ll admit that I developed a bias against Uber in favor of Lyft with the Uber missteps mentioned above.

Still, it remains to be seen if allying with the seemingly more esteemed health world will repair Uber’s reputation or how much its brand is even suffering, says Modern Healthcare. 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,” Georgetown University business professor Marlene Towns told the AP last fall, regarding Uber. “We tend to be, if not forgiving, forgetful.”

Professor Towns has hit the nail on the head.

“We might be especially forgiving if we happen to be spared a hefty ambulance bill,” she aptly notes

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