Uber and Lyft aren't ambulances, but some people use them like they are
Uber or Lyft drivers don't have lights bolted to the roofs of their cars, can't flip on sirens to speed through traffic and most likely aren't trained emergency medical responders.
But that isn't stopping people from hailing one to catch a ride to emergency rooms.
A handful of stories scattered across the internet indicate that some Uber or Lyft drivers around Pittsburgh essentially became ambulance drivers when their passengers told them to go to the emergency room and step on it.
“That would be the most concerning,” Dr. Thomas Campbell, chairman of emergency medicine for Allegheny Health Network, said. “There isn't a way for them to get through traffic with lights or sirens, and they don't have any trained personnel in the car to help.”
Campbell, however, has never seen a patient show up with life threatening injuries in the back seat of an Uber of Lyft. Patients have used Uber or Lyft to get to the emergency room and hospitals for minor and non-life threatening matters. That he supports, as it gives people an alternative way to get the care they need without needlessly taking an ambulance out of service for the ride.
An ambulance ride can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars and insurance won't always pay for it, forcing people to look for rides to the emergency room. Both Uber and Lyft stress they are not substitutes for ambulances or other emergency transportation, and both urge drivers to call 911 for passengers in emergency situations.
UPMC said in a statement that it is concerned some patients won't get treatment as quickly as possible if they are transported in a car instead of an ambulance.
In cities where Uber is an option, demand for ambulances has dropped, according to a paper published in October by David Slushy, an economist at the University of Kansas, and Leon Moskatel from the Department of Medicine at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego. The pair compared the number of times ambulances were used before and after Uber started operating and found a 7 percent drop. It's a correlation, not a causation, but the findings suggest Uber does free up ambulance resources.
“This decrease likely caused a reduction in wait time for the remaining ambulance volume,” they wrote. “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.”
Uber and Lyft drivers may decline any ride they don't want and can't tell the difference between a ride request to the ER to visit friend or family and one for a medical emergency.
Uber provided free rides home to get people out of danger at the Washington Navy Yard following the mass shooting there in 2013 and stayed active after the Boston Marathon bombing five years to give family members of victims rides to the hospital. Uber also launched Uber Health in March to help hospitals, clinics and care facilities arrange and pay for rides for patients and staff caring for patients.
Drivers interviewed by the Tribune-Review said they have never been in an emergency health situation and didn't know of other drivers who had.
There are a few stories posted on internet message boards, social media and online news sites of drivers around Pittsburgh being asked to drive a passenger to the hospital for an emergency. Drivers don't appear to be fans of the situation.
One Pittsburgh-area driver on the internet message board www.uberpeople.net posted that a passenger once had chest pains and asked to go to the emergency room. The driver wrote that the man didn't have insurance and couldn't afford an ambulance. The driver refused to take the man, but offered to call an ambulance and wait with him until it arrived. The driver also offered to take him to a nearby office building where there was likely an AED.
Another Pittsburgh-area driver in the same forum posted a story about driving someone to the emergency room with chest pains and a numb arm. The driver indicated the passenger's health wasn't the top priority.
“I didn't speed up either,” the driver wrote. “My rims, suspension, and brand new tires are worth more than a cheap stranger's ER trip with huge massive pot holes everywhere.”
BuzzFeed interviewed a Pittsburgh Uber driver named Jamie for a story in February about people using Ubers as ambulances and drivers hating it.
“I drive my kids in the car,” Jamie said. “I don't want deathly ill people in my car, to be honest.”
But a driver who posted to Facebook a few years ago about driving a woman in labor to Magee-Womens Hospital relished the experience.
“I feel like a new daddy again,” the driver wrote.
Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.