Clinical laboratories and pathology groups that use taxicabs to pick up patient specimens and bring them to the lab now have the option of using Uber and Lyft for this service

For decades, medical laboratories have used taxicabs to have specimens picked up from one location and driven to the lab for testing. This was a way to handle STAT specimens, for example. Now, with the rise in popularity of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, a burgeoning trend has emerged where people utilize ride-services rather than driving themselves to the emergency room (ER) for medical treatment. Should clinical laboratories use ride-sharing services as well for transporting specimens?

Cost and Choice Two Advantages of Ride-sharing Services

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are 130.4 million visits to ERs each year in the US and approximately 15% of those patients arrive by ambulance. But ambulance rides and EMT services can be costly.

According to howmuchisit.org, a website where visitors can find out how much average consumers paid for products and services around America, a trip to the ER by ambulance can range from $350 to $2,000 or more, depending on location, distance to the ER, and the patient’s insurance company.

Conversely, the cost for the same transportation by Uber or Lyft would typically cost less than $100.

So, price is one advantage ride-sharing services have over traditional ambulance rides. There are others. Patients also can choose which hospital they will be taken to for treatment. This option is generally not available via ambulance. Additionally, passengers know what the price of the trip with Uber or Lyft will be up front. Months can pass before patients receive a bill for a traditional ambulance ride.

But is it a good idea to call up Uber or Lyft instead of dialing 911 in a potentially life-threatening situation when moments count and emergency medical technician (EMT) skills can save lives?

To Uber or Not to Uber? That Is the Question

There are no statistics on the number of people who use ride-sharing services to go to the ER. However, many drivers in a chat room for Uber drivers acknowledged an escalation in the amount of requests for trips to the ER, usually for maladies such as broken bones, bleeding wounds, vomiting, or allergic reactions.

In a STAT article, Francis Piekut, who drives for both Uber and Lyft in Boston, described what he encountered when taking a call to transport a passenger to the ER. “They were burned and wanted to go the emergency room,” he stated. “I don’t know how bad it was, but I knew they were in pain really bad.” He took the individual where they wanted to go, as he would any other fare.

“I didn’t mind it,” Piekut added. “I was already there, and I know the ambulance costs a lot.”

However, other drivers in the chat room indicated they had or would refuse such service requests due to:

  • Liability issues;
  • Fear of getting blood or vomit in their car;
  • Knowing that they could not speed through the streets like an ambulance during an emergency; and
  • Apprehension about being stuck with a dead body if the passenger perished on the way to the ER.

Officially, Uber and Lyft recommend that people call 911 in the event of an emergency. In an ABC News article, Uber stated: “We’re grateful our service has helped people get to where they’re going when they need it most. 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 encourage people to call 911.”

The screen shot above taken from an NBC News TODAY video shows that some Uber drivers feel they are not required or prepared to substitute for an actual ride in an ambulance or EMT van. Click on the link above to watch the full video report. (Photo copyright: NBC News TODAY.)

Nevertheless, some emergency departments are looking at ride-sharing services to reduce their workload. Officials in Washington DC are researching the use of such services for “non-emergency, low-acuity” calls. These types of calls were responsible for nearly half of the city’s 911 calls in 2015, STAT reported.

“In our research, we found that many of these calls did not require an ambulance,” Doug Buchanan, Chief Communications Officer for the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services (DC FEMS), noted in the STAT article. He believes it would be beneficial if people with non-emergencies used ride-hailing services instead of an ambulance. “We would love our residents to take that initiative,” he stated.

Baltimore ER physician Mark Plaster, MD, believes there should be multiple transportation options available to patients to accommodate different types and intensities of injuries.

“I would hope that no one who needed truly urgent medical attention would take an Uber,” Plaster urged in the STAT article. “If you need medical care en route, a private car is a bad idea, because you won’t have the personnel or equipment to treat you.”

Nevertheless, Plaster can see some merit in using ride-sharing services to get to the ER.

“Rideshares don’t take ambulances out of service, and not everybody coming into the ER is in a dire situation,” he stated in the STAT article. “And the ambulance can be expensive.”

Clinical Laboratories Use Taxis to Transport Specimens

Ride-sharing services were originally established to improve on the cost and availability of taxicab services. Apparently, their faster service versus a traditional taxicab also makes them a desirable option for some individuals who need to get to an ER. But before you call Uber or Lyft to go to the ER, know that they are not prepared for true emergencies and your life could be on the line.

Clinical laboratories and pathology groups, on the other hand, have been using taxicabs for the delivery of lab specimens for decades. It is likely, then, that services like Uber and Lyft will soon be used for the transportation of lab test specimens, as well, and will continue to be utilized into the future.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

For a Trip to the ER, Some Are Opting for Uber over an Ambulance

Expert Warns: Take Ambulance Instead of Uber or Lyft to ER

Why Many People Are Turning to Uber over Ambulances in Emergencies

Why I Used Uber Instead of an Ambulance

Why some people are calling Uber instead of an ambulance to get to the ER

Uber to the ER?

$164 Per Mile: Surprise Ambulance Bills Are a Growing Problem and Difficult to Avoid

Lyft Plans to Expand to 100 More US Cities in 2017

Lyft vs. Uber: Just How Dominant Is Uber In the Ridesharing Business?