Can Uber Reduce Ambulance Usage In A City?

12/15/2017 06:53 am ET

Uber is rarely out of the news, and often for fairly negative reasons, whether it's their lacklustre treatment of drivers or their impact on local economies.  One of the more interesting analyses has come courtesy of research from the University of Kansas, which examined how the arrival of Uber in a city impacts the usage of ambulance services.

The paper finds that in cities across the United States, Uber can be responsible for a 7% reduction in ambulance volume, courtesy of lower-risk patients opting to use the service in preference to a ride with paramedics.  The authors believe this interesting finding can be crucial in the global desire to constrain healthcare spending.

"In order to lower health care spending while improving health outcomes, people can use the least-skilled professional who is still qualified," the authors say. "It's the same in the provider space: you don't need a neurosurgeon to diagnose strep throat."

The right level of care

The authors believe that patients who require the emergency room and who are too sick to drive, but who do not need medical care during that journey are ideal candidates for services such as Uber.  They reveal that a single ambulance journey can often run into the thousands of dollars.

"Many patients don't need something that can break traffic laws and don't need something staffed by paramedics with a bunch of fancy equipment," they say.

The study saw ambulance rates in 766 American cities analyzed over a three year period from 2013 to 2015.  Each city had Uber operating in them, and the researchers explored rates before and after their entry into the city.

The analysis revealed that the arrival of Uber coincided with a 7% decrease in the ambulance usage rate.  Suffice to say, correlation does not imply causation, and the authors wanted to test whether there are other factors involved.  For instance, did Uber result in fewer traffic accidents or less drunken driving?

Whilst that is certainly a possibility, the study finds mixed evidence towards that being the primary cause in the fall.  Instead, the authors believe it is more likely that patients now have an extra option for getting to hospital safely, and perhaps more importantly, cheaply.

Multiple benefits

The authors believe that their findings could have multiple implications.  For instance, insurance companies might begin to encourage patients to take an Uber to hospital rather than calling the ambulance.

Not only does this make things cheaper all around, but it also frees up ambulances for those people that really need them.

"Given that even a reduction of a few minutes can drastically improve survival rates for serious conditions, this could be associated with a substantial welfare improvement," the researchers say.

Analyzing the impact of Uber is perhaps not the first place you would look when exploring ways to reduce the cost of delivering healthcare, but the study is a telling reminder that savings can emerge in all manner of unexpected places.

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