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Uber to the ER?

When should you call a ride service and not an ambulance?

Should You Uber to the ER?

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People requiring medical attention are frequently turning to ride services rather than ambulances.

Transportation becomes a challenging issue for people as they age, especially for those who no longer drive and may have increasingly frequent medical appointments. Many rely on ride services such as Uber and Lyft, and some are even arranging for a car, instead of calling an ambulance, in an emergency.

Drivers for the car services say they are getting calls every day from people needing immediate medical attention, according to media reports.

In official statements, Uber and Lyft say that they are to be used in nonemergency situations and that people should call 911 when they need medical assistance. But ambulance runs can cost more than a $1,000 and aren’t always completely covered by insurance. This is a big bill for seniors living on a fixed income, so the temptation to “Uber it” is understandable. 

It is important for people to remember, though, that an ambulance not only provides a ride to the hospital; it is also carrying emergency medical technicians, who are trained to provide lifesaving services and who know what local hospital is best suited for patients’ needs. Customers may also get pushback from ride services when requesting emergency transportation. Drivers are often reluctant to pick up sick or injured passengers for fear that if something goes wrong, they could be held liable or that the injury will cause damage to their vehicle. 

On the message board, drivers talk about their experiences with medical emergencies. One worker expressed willingness to take those with minor injuries, such as an athlete with a sprained ankle or someone who feels under the weather, but drew the line at anyone with a bleeding injury.  “I've canceled several bleeders, bar brawlers, or people who did something stupid and now are bleeding like a stuck pig?” the driver says. “No, I just offer to dial 911 for them. I'm just not paying to have blood cleaned up again. Been there, done that.”

When Ride Services Can Be Effective

Gary M. Stephenson, director of public relations for Washington, D.C., hospitals Sibley Memorial and Suburban (both members of Johns Hopkins Medicine), says that these hospitals do not track data on how many people come to their emergency departments via ride share. But they do recommend these services for patients who don’t have access to other transportation when they are ready to leave. 

Many hospitals and medical facilities are partnering with ride-hailing services, including national medical transportation provider American Medical Response, which teamed up with Lyft on the “One Call” service for health care systems’ integrated patient transport programs. Through the service, hospitals and caregivers can arrange nonemergency ride share service or ambulance transportation through one phone call or via an online portal. 

Using Common Sense

Ultimately, the best way to decide whether to take an ambulance to the hospital is on a case-by-case basis, says Dan Collins, senior director of media relations for Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “If you are unsure, try to contact your physician first and see what they recommend.” It is also good to listen to your own body, he adds. “If your ankle is hurting, you are probably OK to take a ride service, but if it seems like something more serious, especially in an older person, it may be best to take an ambulance.”

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