Will there be an Uber for healthcare? Probably, but not just yet. I expect it to be widely available in the next decade. And, as a result, people will get expert medical care which is more convenient, less expensive, and more accessible.

Media articles have prematurely proclaimed that Uber for healthcare models currently exist. What they have missed are the fundamental reasons why the transportation service Uber has been able to thrive. To understand this, these questions need to be asked and answered:

  • What problem is Uber trying to solve?
  • What enabling technologies allowed it to happen?
  • What would an Uber for healthcare look like?

 

The problem Uber is trying to solve

Fundamentally, what Uber does is help people get from point A to B. This is a problem particularly in densely populated cities where many people have the same need. Before Uber, their choices included using public transportation, driving a car, or using a taxi. Each mode of transportation had its own hassle factors and benefits.

  • Public transportation is cheap. By and large, the schedule is predictable and fixed, but consequently not flexible. It frequently does not offer the most direct option to get between point A and B. And, it is a shared experience with many, many consumers.
  • Driving a car is more expensive. It offers the most flexible schedule, though—because you do the driving! It also offers the most direct option of getting to where you need to go. As opposed to the communal experience of public transportation, driving your own car is a private experience, but it comes at the expense of you doing the driving and needing to know where to go (although this is largely mitigated by the widespread availability of GPS-powered apps like Google maps and Waze).
  • Using a taxi can be less expensive than driving a car, but it is more expensive than public transportation. In locales, like New York City and Washington DC, where a sea of taxi cabs flood the streets, it can be convenient and, like driving yourself, it offers direct transportation from A to B. Also, there is no hassle factor of needing to know how to drive or knowing where to go. Unlike the other two options, taxis offer variable experiences. Some taxi drivers are excellent and get you to your destination quickly, safely and professionally. Others, not so much.

 

uber app

The fourth option

What Uber did is offer a fourth option. With its app, it connects people who need transportation to a pool of drivers. After riders set up an account, they indicate on the app where they want to go. Nearby Uber drivers see the rider on their app, accept the job, pick up and then drop off the rider at their desired destination. Payment processed seamlessly by the app so no cash or credit cards are physically exchanged between the two parties. More importantly, there is accountability of the transportation experience for both the driver and rider as each get to rate the other.

 

What enabling technologies allowed Uber to happen

While the smartphone certainly is important, what matters more is the development of the enabling technologies: GPS navigation tools. This is the point most articles miss when proclaiming a company or product the next Uber for healthcare.

Before the advent of GPS apps and devices, people paid taxi drivers to get them from point A to B. They relied on the driver’s experience, expertise, and mental map of the city on how to get there quickly and efficiently. The do-it-yourself alternative is to drive themselves, pull out paper maps and have someone help navigate or pull to the side of the road when they got lost.

With the plethora of GPS navigation apps and devices today, no one gets lost. Everyone is an expert navigating through the city. The advent of GPS also means that taxi drivers no longer are the only experts available to navigate the city. Their expertise and experience are now encoded in the software and available to anyone in a very easy format. GPS navigation apps and devices make everyone a driver who can get from point A to B efficiently and reliably and not just in one city, but every city.

As a result, anyone with GPS who has a license to drive could be a taxi driver or expert navigator anywhere and at anytime. He didn’t need to have years of experience navigating the city to create a mental map. He could hop on or hop off at anytime as a driver. Without GPS, it highly unlikely there would be a large enough pool of willing drivers available to ensure Uber riders always had an available car nearby. Fortunately for Uber, this is not a problem as, in less than four years operating in New York City, there are more Uber drivers than taxi drivers.

Uber’s app certainly made the crucial link of connecting these drivers with riders easy and convenient. It is this link of connecting doctors to patients that the media often focused on when looking at healthcare. What they are missing is, where is the GPS device or app equivalent in healthcare?

 

What would an Uber for healthcare look like?

The problem patients want solved is getting, as quickly and directly as possible, to the reason for their symptoms and then getting the treatment needed to resolve the issue. The enabling technology healthcare needs is software for consumers that replicates the expertise of doctors much the same way as GPS devices did for the navigation expertise of taxi drivers. GPS allows any driver to be an expert driver in any city (e.g. New York, San Francisco, Boston, or Los Angeles). The Uber for healthcare would allow anyone to access the expertise of the best doctor for diabetes, bladder infections, or cancer care. Like GPS, once this healthcare software or app is developed, it would be made widely available to the public so that they can be expertly guided to learn if they need treatment or not and what type of treatments are available.

Increasingly, software and apps are available that connect doctors to patients and vice versa. But, I believe, what we really need is software that takes medical expertise and makes it available to the public. Once this class of software is widely available to the public, then the Uber for healthcare will have arrived. People will discover healthcare can be super convenient, quick, easy, and inexpensive.

Just like Uber.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I disagree with GirlfriendMD. I think Dr Liu’s analysis is right on. I think that it is a trap to believe that uber disrupted the driver access market, disrupting driver access is too novel. If you fall into this trap then you start thinking that the parallel healthcare model is access, matching consumers to providers. The value prop in this paradigm is quite small especially seeing that network access is a function on payer based contracting and that there is not analytically driven platform to match a consumer to the best provider. I will say that there is some value compared to payer provider directories today but the access okay is not as disruptive as thinking and the expertise play.

    Where I would recommend for this dialogue would be think about what providing expertise really means, I.e there is a difference between diagnosis and treatment pathways, are episode of care pathways variable or sequential, if sequential then what is the slur proposition,….

  2. I think you’ve missed the target but hit the tree when comparing Uber and getting healthcare expertise. Uber gets you access to transportation, it doesn’t get you access to a driver’s expertise, it gets you access to that driver. So a comparable Uber healthcare app wouldn’t give you the doctor’s expertise without the doctor. It would give you access to quick, convenient and reasonably priced physician care.

    It might find you a direct primary care office, for example, some of which will offer home visits. Or it might find you the nearest quick clinic/urgent care type setting and book you an appointment. Or it could find you an online provider to at least triage your concerns. However, I do not think an Uber for healthcare would just provide you with a way to input your issues and in return you’d receive a diagnosis or treatment plan (which would cut out the provider all together), as at this point, you could already do that with a number of apps, but you’d be missing the clinical judgment of a provider. Whether you think that’s better or worse is obviously up to you, but are you really hoping we’re getting to a stage where doctors can be replaced by apps?

    • You are right. Uber merely connects riders to drivers. What makes the pool of drivers widely available is the creation of GPS devices. As a result of GPS, the number of drivers are far greater (anyone with a GPS device) compared to the number of professional (taxi) drivers.

      Is there a way that software can make the pool of doctors and our expertise greater than currently exists that therefore can increase access to medical care? Isn’t it possible that clinical judgment of a provider could be imbedded in the software if clinically safe and appropriate? Let’s start with the simplest tasks and problems that medical science determines can be done via well validated evidence and protocols. That is one way to make care more affordable, more accessible and less expensive.

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