Big money, and bigger pitfalls, await the ride-hailing giant
Uber announced the launch of a new digital tool meant to book rides for patients who need assistance getting to and from their appointments. A health care provider can book a ride for patients and caregivers immediately, within a few hours, or with 30 days’ notice. The company is positioning itself as a cheaper and more reliable option than most non-emergency medical transportation.
Uber Health is available in two versions: as an online dashboard and as an API for software developers to integrate ride-hailing capabilities into their own health care tools. The service doesn’t require an Uber account; notifications can arrive via SMS text message. The company plans to expand the service so that people with landlines will be able to get trip details that way — or via a mobile phone that isn’t a smartphone. Uber says the billing is simple and easy to manage. It’s also compliant with our most important medical privacy law. Today’s announcement includes over 100 health care providers all across the US.
The non-medical-emergency medical transportation market is worth more than $3 billion, according to the Transit Cooperative Research Program, a federally funded independent research entity. A lot of that money is for people who can’t drive — either because of age or poverty — and so Medicare and Medicaid providers foot the bill. Uber has clearly become interested in the industry. In 2016, Uber partnered with Boston-based company Circulation to provide rides for patients to more than 700 participating health facilities in 25 states. And last January, the company hired a veteran lobbyist in Washington, DC, to pursue the ride-hailing company’s agenda on policies related to health care and medical records privacy. It’s not the only ride-share company looking for a piece of this market: Lyft also teamed up with Circulation and with insurer CareMore Health Systems.
“If there are people who are missing their appointments because they’re using an unreliable bus service to get to and from their healthcare provider, this is a great solution for them,” Chris Weber, general manager of Uber Health, told The Verge. “The types of individuals this is valuable for really is limitless.”
An average of 3.6 million Americans miss their health care appointments every year because of unreliable transportation, according to JAMA Internal Medicine. Missed appointments can trigger a chain reaction of increased emergency room visits, extended hospital readmissions, and higher costs distributed across the industry. Experts estimate the impact of these missed appointments is $150 billion every year.
Uber Health is compliant with the US’s health care rules on data privacy, known as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. “We built this service from the ground-up in a fully HIPAA-compliant technology stack,” Weber said. “It was architected from Day One. Everything we built from a technology perspective was built to fit within the constraints and best practices of HIPAA.”
And while being HIPAA-compliant is a good thing, it doesn’t necessarily get rid of all the risk. “Even if a platform is HIPAA-compliant, providers risk potential imposition of stiff penalties for data breaches, and business associate agreements should be implemented between providers and ridesharing companies,” legal consultants from Carlton Fields wrote in a 2016 note entitled “Offering Ridesharing Services to Patients: Uber Risky?”
Uber was hit by a cyberattack in 2016, exposing the personal information of 57 million riders and drivers. Later, the company was accused of trying to cover it up.
Uber also doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to wheelchair accessibility. The company was sued by disability advocates last year, accused of denying equal access to people who use wheelchairs and violating Title 3 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Weber said, “It’s definitely something we’re focused on making a better, more reliable experience, but as of now this is really focused on reaching out to the existing driver network.”
Even as the ride-hailing company tightens its grip on all forms of transportation, don’t expect this to lead to Uber-branded ambulances in the near future. “Not on our road map,” Weber said.