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Can ride-hailing companies cure medical transportation woes?

Lyft and Uber are attempting to cure a major medical problem for poor people and the elderly: Getting a ride to the doctor.

The ride-hailing services are expanding their offer to take patients around the country to and from non-emergency health care appointments, and they have a huge market to target.

More than 7 million Americans miss medical care every year due to a lack of transportation, according to health economist Paul Hughes-Cromwick.

Health insurers and care providers have been trying to solve this problem for years. Those who have studied it say Lyft and Uber will help, but improving access to health care involves more than just lining up a ride.

A closer look:

Q: What are these companies offering?

A: Lyft said Monday it is partnering with the information technology company Allscripts to expand the number of rides it offers through doctor's offices and other health care providers. The company already provides transportation to millions of patients each year through partnerships with insurers, large health care systems and others.

Uber announced last week that it will offer health care transportation in every U.S. market where it operates, the continuation of a venture it has been testing since last summer.

Both companies say they will operate in cities and less-populated rural areas, and they will bill the care provider or an insurer — not the patient — for the rides. Patients don't need a smartphone or an application to use their services.

They're digging into an issue that has long been a concern for insurers and health care providers. The state- and federally funded Medicaid program for poor people and the disabled covers transportation costs.

The insurer Molina Healthcare, which specializes in Medicaid, has offered a transportation benefit for around 25 years. Molina provides bus passes and works with transportation brokers to arrange rides.

Q: What are the benefits?

A: Health care providers say rides with Uber or Lyft can be easier to schedule and cheaper than other alternatives like taxis. Uber, for instance, says it can schedule rides within a few hours or up to 30 days in advance.

These companies help people who might otherwise have to wait around for a friend or family member to pick them up, said Carlos Ospina, chief clinical officer of New Jersey-based Pro Staff Physical Therapy.

"It gives the patient more independence or power to get to and from visits," he said.

The company has had a "significantly lower" number of cancellations due to transportation problems since it started using Uber last fall, Ospina said.

Q: Can they erase the problem?

A: Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania offered Lyft to help around 300 Medicaid patients make primary care appointments at two practices in Philadelphia. They were surprised to find that relatively few people accepted the offer in their study, and it did not lead to a drop in missed appointments.

Lead author Dr. Krisda Chaiyachati said there were several possible reasons for the low interest. The offer was made over the phone, and patients might have been more receptive if it was done in person, like at a doctor's office.

He also noted that many of the patients were familiar with Lyft but hadn't used it. They may have been reluctant to switch from rides they were used to like public transportation.

Chaiyachati said he's optimistic that ride-hailing services will ease transportation problems for some, but other options like home visits or telemedicine may also be needed.

"It's just not that easy or that straightforward," he said.

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