Uber has launched “Uber Health” in Australia, a new non-emergency patient transport service which allows health professionals and organisations to schedule, manage and pay for rides for their patients, caregivers and staff to and from their clinic, hospital or health service. This article discusses the potential risks and benefits for health service providers utilising this service.

What is Uber Health?

Uber Health is a new non-emergency patient transport service which has just launched in Australia. Uber Health allows health professionals and organisations to schedule, manage and pay for rides for their patients, caregivers and staff to and from their clinic, hospital or health service. Australia will be the first market outside the USA to trial the new platform.

Uber Health describes itself as:

“a technology solution for healthcare organisations that leverages the ride hailing power of the Uber platform. The web-based dashboard allows hospitals and other healthcare professionals to request, manage, and pay for non-emergency rides for others, at scale. Healthcare organisations are using Uber Health to help get people to and from the care they need, and to get staff to and from work.”

Potential Benefits

Uber Health is designed to improve patient accessibility to healthcare and address inefficiencies and monetary losses arising from missed appointments. Although access to healthcare appointments in Australia is mostly free, the reality is that the cost of healthcare is incurred by Australian taxpayers. Missed medical appointments are placing an increased strain on the country’s healthcare system, both in terms of financial and resourcing constraints. Uber Health attempts to address these issues whilst capitalising on the need for patient transportation. There is no requirement for patients to download the Uber app or to even have a mobile phone or credit card – alerts are sent via text message or landline calls with details of the ride provided in more than 20 languages. We can see particular benefit for Australia’s elderly population to get to and from their medical appointments.

Further, health service providers can schedule rides on behalf of patients, caregivers, and staff to take place immediately, within a few hours, or up to 30 days in advance which allows for transportation to be scheduled for follow-up appointments while still at the healthcare facility.

Risks

What then of the potential risks? Firstly, there are potential privacy issues arising from the use and/or storage of patient information. In relation to this issue, Uber ANZ has stated:

“The Uber Health dashboard was specifically designed with healthcare companies in mind, so you can safeguard your patients’ information from start to finish … No medical data is stored on the Uber Health platform … We’ve worked with health industry experts to build a robust platform with patient privacy front and centre of this service. We have numerous safeguards in place to protect patient health information, including preventing the collection of any health information that is unrelated to the request of a trip. Ride information is encrypted, and for drivers the trip is no different from a normal Uber trip, to ensure patient privacy is upheld to the highest standard.”

Uber has stated that its drivers would not be informed if a trip was booked through Uber Health and that data on Uber Health trips will only be accessible to “those who need it to support the patient”, presumably in an emergency. Whether or not these statements offer adequate reassurance to the Australian public or health professionals in relation to the privacy of health information remains to be seen, particularly given the recent hacking of Uber’s data reported by the New York Times and noting that in 2021 Uber1 was found by the Australian Privacy Commissioner (APC) Angelene Falk to have breached a number of the Australian Privacy Principles contained in schedule 1 of the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) in relation to the cover up of a cyber attack. Further, many Australians (more than 2.5 million) have opted out of the federal government’s My Health Record due to security concerns following early issues which prevented clinical use and recently the South Australian Ambulance Service announced that the personal details of 28,000 patients was stolen when a storage device was stolen from a consultancy firm.

In addition to privacy issue, another potential area of concern is the medical risk of patients during a trip. Uber currently offers “Uber Assist”, a service for transportation of disabled or mobility-challenged people. Uber Assist drivers are required to complete independent training from a third-party organisation about how to help riders into vehicles, however Uber Health drivers are not required to undertake any additional training. Uber has stated that the healthcare organisations arranging the rides are instructed to never book Uber Health rides for patients who could present a medical risk during a trip, including emergency patients and patients with infectious diseases. State ambulance services already contract non-urgent patient transport to third party transport providers and more than 9600 people were transported to medical care by taxis organised by Ambulance Victoria in 2020-21. However, in 2018 Ambulance Victoria faced scrutiny for ordering a taxi to take a woman with acute appendicitis to hospital.

Whilst there are numerous potential benefits to Uber Health’s new non-emergency patient transportation service, it remains to be seen whether issues relating to patient privacy and medical risk become real issues for Uber Health, its drivers or its users.

Tips to Manage Risks of Uber Health

Some tips for Health/Medical Practitioners and Health Service Providers to manage the risks of Uber Health are:

  1. Before using Uber Health (or any similar patient transportation service), consider the patient’s health condition/s and treatment requirements and whether Uber Health is an appropriate and safe transportation method for the patient.
  2. If the patient has a serious or life-threatening issue or if it may otherwise be potentially inappropriate or unsafe to use Uber Health to transport the patient, consider using an alternative method of patient transportation (i.e. an ambulance).
  3. Do not disclose patients’ health information to Uber Health without appropriate authorisation to do so.
  4. If in doubt about the appropriateness of Uber Health for a patient, seek advice from a senior colleague or other appropriate source.