Uber, Lyft gear up to help get patients clinical trial sites

By Jonah Comstock

If you were to make a list of companies you'd expect to see at a clinical trial-focused health technology conference like DPharm Disruptive Innovation US, you probably wouldn't include ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft. But they were both in attendance in Boston today, presenting remarkably similar visions for using their software platforms to solve transportation problems in healthcare.

"Why can’t Uber be that 'Uber for health' around the specific area of medical transportation?" John Brownstein, the CIO of Boston Children's Hospital and Uber's health advisor, said in his presentation. "Maybe it's not as sexy as these on-demand concepts. But we know that $6 billion are spent annually on healthcare transportation. We have a massive number of no-shows and transportation plays a really critical role. And when you look specifically at clinical trials, we have major issues with dropouts and we know some of those are just about logistics, just about getting to those trial sites."

Lyft Account Executive Omar Nagji joked that Brownstein had stolen his slides when he went to present many of the same statistics about the costs of missed appointments that could be impacted by better transportation.

"Really what we’re pointing at is there’s a lot of dollars being spent on transportation, however we’re still seeing millions and millions of missed appointments as a result of lack of transportation," he said. "So how does that transportation barrier impact clinical trials?"

Current methods, which involve taxi vouchers and bus passes, leave too much up to chance, Brownstein argued. Brownstein's recently launched Circulation initiative taps into Uber's network to get patients to clinical trial sites, using a system that allows trial organizers to coordinate rides themselves in a software backend so they know exactly where the patient is. The patient interacts with the system via text message. And of course Lyft's venture, which Nagji described, seems similar.

Correction: Circulation is not a part of Uber, as we originally implied, but an independent startup partnered with Uber and using Uber's technology.

"What this allows you to do is leverage the Lyft network and schedule and preschedule rides in advance," he said. "It also lets you centralize billing, so they don’t necessarily need a smartphone. They can’t change the destination as well. You have more transparency and more datapoints around those patients."

This isn't the first health-related project from either company. Brownstein originally became involved with Uber when he teamed up on an initiative to deliver on-demand flu shots, which is about to enter its third year. The company is still interested in bringing healthcare to people with things like Uber Health, Brownstein said, but bringing people to healthcare is more immediately addressable. 

"The starting point for us was ‘How do you take the existing framework and bring some efficiency?’ because that was an easier thing to tackle than to completely reverse the direction, but absolutely we’re thinking about how do you bring these services in," he said. "You get some issues of scale. There’s costs associated with it. But if you work that out, there’s huge opportunities, especially with some of these recurring issues like blood testing and other things, where you can improve adherence by keeping people from having to move."

Lyft, on the other hand, has been working with CareMore to deliver patients to their providers. Nagji presented some early data from that project, published in JAMA which showed a 30 percent reduction in wait times, a 32 percent cost savings and 80 percent patient satisfaction.

Asked about the business model for Circulation, Brownstein said there were plenty of possibilities. 

"It could be software as a license fee, it could be participating in some of the savings from reducing those no-shows," he said. "In the clinical trial space, this is not new money that’s being spent on transportation. Huge dollars are being spent on transportation."