With growing focus on innovation, New Jersey’s largest healthcare systems are now embracing ridesharing, the millennial mainstay that hospital leaders hope can help them ensure patients with transportation challenges can still get timely and appropriate care, at no extra cost out of pocket.
Hackensack Meridian Health announced Wednesday it has partnered with the ride-sharing company Lyft to create what it said was the nation’s first “fully digital, centralized ride-share command center” to coordinate non-emergency transportation for individuals who have trouble getting to their medical appointments. The program will begin at JFK Medical Center in Edison, the site of a recent pilot program, and expand to all 16 hospitals within the Hackensack Meridian network in the coming months.
Two days earlier, RWJBarnabas Health, which serves some 5 million people, revealed it was joining with Uber Health, a ridesharing service with a federally approved medical transportation platform, to help ambulatory patients get to and from medical appointments. The program, which will supplement existing transportation services, will be available starting Monday at Jersey City Medical Center, and will grow from there to assist patients accessing the network’s 10 other hospitals and supporting provider sites.
Need a rideshare?
Leaders for both systems stressed the importance of transportation in enabling patients to access proper preventative care and treatments for chronic conditions, which can help them to stay healthy and control the overall cost of medical care. They also pointed to a study from the Community Transportation Association, a Washington D.C.-based trade group, that found 3.6 million Americans — including nearly 1 million children — missed or were late to medical appointments as a result of transportation issues.
“Transportation issues should not prevent anyone from getting to or from a doctor’s appointment,” Hackensack Meridian’s co-CEO Robert Garrett said. “Our centralized rideshare command center allows us to interact often with patients, especially those with chronic diseases, to drive better health outcomes.”
John Lloyd, the system’s other co-CEO, said the collaboration is part of Hackensack Meridian’s ongoing effort to improve access to care. “We do all we can to eliminate barriers and to enhance the patient experience,’’ he said.
The programs also reflect a growing awareness of the social determinants of health — how things like safe housing, transportation, nutrition, and economics play a critical role in clinical outcomes. This has led healthcare leaders to invest in these root causes, creating urban gardens and farmers markets to improve healthy food options and working with community health workers to curb cardiovascular disease.
Making prevention a priority
This work has become a priority for RWJBarnabas, whose president and CEO Barry Ostrowsky has embraced opportunities to keep patients healthy and out of the hospital. The network created the Beth Greenhouse, in Newark, launched a home-based asthma prevention program in Jersey City, and has worked to “senior-rize” homes for elderly residents, removing tripping hazards and other potential dangers.
Ostrowsky and his team also began considering how to integrate a ridesharing service last year, a process that resulted in Monday’s announcement. “We know transportation can be a barrier in accessing necessary health services and we are pleased to partner with Uber Health to help address this need,” he said.
“Our goal has always been to make healthcare more accessible and with Uber Health, we can reduce transportation barriers for patients traveling to primary-care appointments and follow-up care visits, and provide a safe ride home after being discharged from the hospital,” Ostrowsky added.
Medicaid, the state and federal insurance program for low-income residents, recognized the importance of non-emergency medical transportation many years ago. New Jersey spends more than $170 million annually to contract with a national transportation provider, who arranges rides for some 350,000 patients each year. (A recent audit recommended greater state oversight of this system, which has a troubled history with some users.)
More recently, ridesharing services have entered this market. The Uber Health dashboard, launched earlier this year, involved a trial that began last summer at more than 100 hospitals and doctor’s offices. The system allows medical providers to schedule patients’ rides home or dispatch a car to their residence to pick them up for appointments. The patient is notified by text and, even if they have the Uber app on their phone, would not be charged for the ride, according to a report in The Atlantic.
“Uber Health is focused on equipping innovative healthcare providers such as RWJBarnabas Health with the tools they need to provide patients with the best possible experience,” said Jay Holley, Uber Health’s head of partnersihps. “We’re excited to partner with RWJBarnabas Health in efforts to eliminate transportation as a barrier to care.”
Hackensack Meridian — which is slated to open a private medical school this summer — took a different approach, working with Lyft to create their own internal dashboard system to allow network providers to arrange transportation for patients who have trouble getting to the appointment on their own. Each hospital campus will eventually have its own digital map and designated pickup and drop-off spots for the service.
Anticipating high-demand times
Providers can print out details about the car and driver for patients, or call them with the information, and the system enables Hackensack Meridian to track their patients en route. The software even allows providers to anticipate high demand for rides and plan in advance, to reduce wait times.
“We are excited to partner with Hackensack Meridian Health to help them leverage ride-sharing as a transportation solution as they expand their network to provide patients with greater access to the full continuum of care,” said Ann Ferracane, Lyft’s New Jersey general manager.
The system, to be funded by Hackensack Meridian, was able to reduce the company’s transportation costs by 25 percent during the three-month pilot program. The Community Transportation Association estimates that for every $1 invested in non-emergency medical transportation, more than $11 can be saved in reduced healthcare costs.
“The excellent results from JFK’s pilot program are a great example of how Hackensack Meridian Health is innovatively collaborating with technology companies to break down barriers to healthcare,’’ Garrett said.