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Uber Launches Service To Get People To The Doctor's Office

An Uber waits for a client in New York City. The company is partnering with health care organizations to provide patients with reliable transportation.

Uber wants to get you from your home to your doctor's office and you won't even need to open the Uber app. The company announced Thursday that it's teaming up with health care organizations to provide transportation for patients going to and from medical appointments.

The rides can be scheduled for patients through doctor's offices, by receptionists or other staffers. And they can be booked for immediate pickup or up to 30 days in advance. That means patients without a smartphone — who wouldn't be able to use Uber otherwise — can become Uber customers.

Instead of operating through an app, Uber Health will send its passengers' ride information through an SMS text message. The company also plans to introduce the option for passengers to receive a call with trip details to their landline instead. Drivers will still use the Uber smartphone app to pick up these passengers.

"Transportation barriers are the greatest for vulnerable populations," says Chris Weber, the general manager of Uber Health. "This service will provide reliable, comfortable transportation for patients."

Transportation is, indeed, a barrier to good health care. Affordable access to a vehicle is consistently associated with increased access to medical care, according to a study. Around 3.6 million Americans miss doctor's appointments or delay medical care due to a lack of transportation every year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

To meet the medical privacy standards outlined in the federal HIPAA law, drivers won't know which of their passengers are using Uber Health. Like a typical Uber ride, only a passenger's name, pickup and drop-off addresses will be given to the driver. So Uber drivers won't be able to opt into the health service the same way that they opt into Uber Eats, a food delivery service.

Peter Whorley, who drives a Honda Odyssey minivan for Uber in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., often picks up passengers who need the extra space, including patients traveling to and from doctor's offices.

"I just picked up someone with back surgery the other day," he says. "I like to help people, if they need extra assistance, I personally don't have that problem. But some people might be squeamish, and not want to."

Whorley, who has been driving for Uber for more than two years, is more skeptical about picking up people without smartphones. He thinks location tracking on smartphones is vital to the efficiency of the ride-hailing service. "When you're a good passenger, you should be able to have your phone out to communicate with your driver," he says.

Uber's Weber says that because health care providers will use their best discretion in scheduling the rides, they won't call Ubers for people in need of urgent medical attention. "It's not a replacement to ambulances," he says, but a reliable means of transportation to non-urgent medical services that he hopes will curb missed appointments.

One hundred health care organizations in the U.S., including hospitals, clinics, rehab centers, senior care facilities, home care centers, and physical therapy centers have already used Uber Health's test program. The service will be rolled out to health care organizations gradually.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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