How Ride Sharing Is Changing Transportation for Emergency Services

In the not so distant past, an individual suffering from an injury or illness had few choices to get to a hospital if their condition deteriorated. They could quickly call a family member for help, brave the danger and attempt to drive in their condition, or a worst case for some, call 911 and have an ambulance take them to get the help they needed.  However, these choices have been eclipsed by a service that was once used solely for leisure and business transportation. New travel alternatives enabled by technology have provided individuals more choices for leisure, business, and now emergency transportation.

Uber and other ride-sharing applications use of technology, crowdsourcing, and innovation have revolutionized the way in which people throughout the world travel in a cost effective manner from destination to destination.  The negative reputation of traditional taxi companies and the ease of obtaining quick, reliable transportation allowed Uber and other ride-sharing apps the freedom to capture large untapped portions of the market. A newly emerging trend has also surfaced and seems poised to disrupt emergency services transportation.  As health care costs continue to rise, people are seeking alternatives to the traditionally high cost associated with medical care. One of the ways in which to reduce the amount of patient spending starts at the onset of a non-life-threatening emergency in the form of getting to the hospital.

A recent study by an assistant professor of economics at the University of Kansas, David Slusky and an internist at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego named Dr. Leon Moskatel sought to explain a trend that was becoming increasingly common.  Slusky and Moskatel analyzed data from the National Emergency Medical Services Information System paired with Uber’s data usage rates for a two year period from 2013 to 2015. They started to notice that as the prevalence of ride-sharing companies like Lyft and Uber gained a stronghold in nearly 800 cities across the US, ambulance rides were dropping.  The results found that when accounting for the timelines behind the introduction of Uber into each city, the overall impact reduced individual ambulance usage rates by around 7 percent. Slusky, having witnessed this phenomenon first hand, was not surprised by the findings. In an interview with the Bay Area News Group Slusky said “If we want to reduce healthcare spending, we have to find ways to do things cheaper.” “People in medical situations tend to think about their health along with what it’s going to cost me,” he said. “And for many of us with high-deductible plans, an ambulance ride would cost thousands of dollars.’’

There are other medical professionals such as Paul Kivela, president of the 37,000-member American College of Emergency Physicians that agree with and support the findings by Slusky and Moskatel.  Dr. Kivela noted that a large number of patients who are using ambulance services to get to the hospital simply because they had no other option to reach medical care. Moreover, Dr. Kivela also cited that a subset of ambulance users are those that pose a low-risk but who can’t drive themselves to the emergency room and do not need the robustness of sirens and a paramedic rendering care within the vehicle.  However, Kivela added a caveat that many people may not be able to differentiate between a life-threatening emergency and an innocent medical issue. In those cases, it is imperative that the patient call 911 in order to avoid any issues.

The authors of the study pointed out another added benefit of utilizing Uber for non-life-threatening emergencies.  They noted that as the volume of 911 calls increased for mostly non-urgent emergencies, ambulance demand was unable to keep up with supply, leaving the most vulnerable at risk. The finding is substantiated by a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research which stated that with the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act this slowed ambulance response times nationwide by an average of 19 percent.  The response times in urban areas took on average 8 minutes to arrive and a much longer arrival time of 14 minutes in rural locations. In situations where people are in need of critical care, the longer wait times could determine if a person survives or is able to pull through.

Not everyone believes that people should use ride-sharing as a substitute for an ambulance, however. Ambulances are vehicles equipped with specific medical machinery, staffed with individuals to dispense medical care for situations like cardiac arrests, head wounds, and seizures, and can provide precise communication on arrival. Uber was quick to comment on the study that suggests using its services as a substitute. “We’re grateful our service has helped people get to where they’re going when they need it the most,” said company spokesman Andrew Hasbun. “However, it’s important to note that Uber is not a substitute for law enforcement or medical professionals. In the event of any medical emergency, we always encourage people to call 911.”  This statement represents that, when in doubt, do not put the driver or yourself in danger, call an ambulance.

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