Hospital Rideshare Program Helps Patients Keep Appointments

University Hospital joins growing number of NJ facilities trying to eliminate big hassle for some patients — getting to the doctor and getting home

Credit: Library of Congress
Patients with appointments for select services at University Hospital can now get free rides — via Lyft, or if needed, medical transport vehicles — thanks to a partnership the Newark hospital has established with a healthcare technology company focused on improving access to care.

Last week University Hospital, which has a unique public role in New Jersey, announced it has contracted with Hitch Health, a Minnesota-based firm that has developed a patient-friendly system to make it easier for patients to get appropriate transportation to medical care.

The service is currently available for appointments at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey’s program at the hospital, as well as certain outpatient pediatric and internal medicine visits, the hospital said. But officials said they plan to expand the service to help other patients as well.

Safe rides save lives

“We know that our patients’ health outcomes can hinge on whether they’re able to get a safe ride to and from their appointments. That’s because transportation can often be the difference between seeing a doctor and going without much-needed services — only to find folks at the doorsteps of our emergency room down the road,” said Dr. Shereef Elnahal, president and CEO of University Hospital and the former state health commissioner.

Elanahal noted that the partnership with Hitch is part of a new community health initiative focused on improving access to primary and preventive care.

University’s contract with Hitch — the terms of which officials declined to make public — is also the latest in a growing number of arrangements to make it easier for at-risk patients see their doctor and get proper care. Last year, both RWJ Barnabas Health and Hackensack Meridian Health, the two largest healthcare networks in New Jersey, rolled out agreements with ride-sharing companies; HMH partnered with Lyft and RWJ Barnabas is working with Uber Health.

Missed appointments all too common

Regardless of the service involved, the goal is the same: make it easier for the 3.6 million Americans — including a million children — who are late or miss appointments as a result of transportation problems, according to studies. Overall, some 30 percent of appointments are no-shows, for various reasons, a frustration for patients and doctors.

In addition, a program led by community health chaplains at University Hospital found that the “overwhelming majority” of Newark patients who frequently use its services said getting to the facility or one of its clinics was a major challenge.

Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka praised the deal with Hitch Health, as did members of the Legislature that represent the city, the state’s largest. “When we’re ill, with limited resources and other concerns, transportation should not be an obstacle to the kind of ongoing care that prevents crisis-type hospital visits,” said state Sen. Ronald L. Rice (D-Essex).

“Transportation, or lack thereof, can be a major barrier to care, preventing people from going to routine appointments or receiving emergency medical attention. Connecting patients to their doctors in a timely manner is a critical piece of improving public health,” added state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex).

There is growing interest in merging healthcare technology and transportation — a Philadelphia-based startup, RoundTrip, works with dozens of Garden State healthcare providers. Officials at University said they selected Hitch Health in part because it was developed by Hennepin Healthcare, a safety-net hospital system in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area known for its focus on quality outcomes. Hitch created a system that integrates with patients’ electronic health records, while maintaining confidentiality requirements, in an effort to make it easy for doctors and patients.

This system enables Hitch to identify eligible patients, connect with them in advance of an appointment via text message, and coordinate transportation on the day of the visit — all without the use of a smart phone or special app, officials said. According to the company website, it has a partnership with Lyft, but also contracts with medical-transport firms that can provide wheelchair vans or other vehicles, as needed.

Officials said Hitch Health includes easy options to confirm the initial pickup and drop-off, and to hail the driver when the patient is ready to go home. In addition, a dashboard enables staff at University Hospital to monitor patients’ progress in real time. Hitch also maintains a multilingual call center, at 1-855-744-0014.