Ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft are expanding their services into the healthcare industry, aiming to capture some of the $3 billion non-emergency medical transportation industry.
Ridesharing’s entrance into healthcare transportation has the potential to drop both costs and wait times, especially for customers who might otherwise pay thousands for an ambulance pickup. The move does present challenges that ridesharing companies will have to navigate, however.
Lyft first made in-roads to healthcare in 2016 by partnering with CareMore Health System, which wanted to improve its “NEMT” services. A study of this partnership, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), found it resulted in a 32 percent cost reduction and 30 percent decrease in wait times.
Uber introduced its own health transportation service, Uber Health, last March. Since then it has partnered with more than 100 healthcare providers to streamline their NEMT services.
The medical transportation industry’s attraction for ridesharing companies is easily explainable: The industry’s value is only expected to rise in coming years. Zion Market Research published a report projecting medical transportation around the world — including all kinds of transportation, not only for patients — will be valued at $42 billion by 2024, a dramatic increase from $25 billion in 2014.
Both Lyft and Uber have indicated ambitions to expand their health transportation services further.
In November, Lyft hired former chief strategy officer for Change Healthcare, Megan Callahan, to head up its medical transportation division. Similarly, in December, Uber hired Aaron Crowell, a health consultant, and Dan Trigub, a former executive of Lyft’s healthcare business.
Callahan said she accepted the position at Lyft to improve access to healthcare for elderly and low-income patients. Uber’s new hires expressed similar goals.
“Our aging, at-risk and low-income populations, among others, deserve greater access to transportation during the times they need it most,” Trigub told CNBC.
According to another JAMA study, around 3.6 million Americans miss healthcare appointments each year because they lack reliable transportation. The National Center for Mobility Management estimated between $675,000 and $1.2 million in lost revenue in 2017 due to missed appointments.
Rather than individuals hailing rides through either the Lyft or Uber apps, medical professionals schedule rides for customers through its own network. Patients do not have to own a smartphone to be picked up by either service.
Ridesharing NEMT has to navigate legal pitfalls. For instance, providers are not allowed to encourage Medicare patients to seek treatment at a particular hospital by providing them with transportation.
“That is one area that providers need to be very, very careful with,” Eric Mallon, a healthcare transactional and regulatory attorney, told HealthLeaders. “That is a law that is targeted at providers and it has significant repercussions if they do not take the appropriate safeguards to ensure that they are not providing free and discounted transportation to induce beneficiaries to pursue medical services at their facilities.”
Mallon also mentioned liability issues, especially in cases involving an accident or abuse during a ride.
Health data privacy is also a potential issue. While Uber Health is HIPAA compliant — drivers have access only to names and addresses — the platform could theoretically provide hackers with a route to a healthcare facility’s general network.
So far, however, the services appear to be thriving. CNBC reported that Lyft’s volume of NEMT rides has tripled since 2017 and Lyft expected to earn $1 billion in revenue through NEMT by the end of 2018. Meanwhile, The Verge listed Uber Health as a tech company to watch in 2019.
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