MedStar Health teams with Uber to help reduce missed appointments

James Furbush
MedStar Health teams with Uber to help reduce missed appointments

It’s hard to get patients to comply with their doctor’s orders if they can’t get to the doctor in the first place. For many patients, transportation issues are the main reason they miss medical appointments or have to reschedule at the last minute. One large healthcare organization recently came up with a unique solution to that problem—Uber.

MedStar Health, the largest healthcare provider in the Baltimore-Washington D.C. region with more than 253 non-acute care access sites and 10 hospitals, partnered with Uber, the ride-sharing service (and slowly morphing into a transportation network), to help ensure reliable rides to medical appointments.

A “Ride with Uber” button is displayed on MedStar’s website so MedStar patients will be able to request a ride. Patients also can set a ride reminder in advance of upcoming doctor’s visits to automatically send a notification before their appointment. It’s an unlikely partnership, albeit one that makes perfect sense as Uber continues to increase it’s healthcare-related ambitions.

Michael Ruiz, MedStar’s Chief Digital Officer, spoke with The Health Leadership Forum about this partnership and MedStar’s other digital ambitions.

Health Leadership Forum: Why partner with Uber?

Ruiz: For many of our patients, access is still a challenge. They can’t find transportation to get to an appointment. We also have several facilities that are in inner cities, and parking is nightmarish at times. We were looking for a novel, innovative way to alleviate these problems. Uber presented itself as a partnership to accomplish this. We are dipping our toe in the water in a small way, by putting their widget on our website.

They are interested in getting into health care more, and we are still in the discovery mode to look at other options to use their platform. This is one small step. We are working with them to put together the architecture to make the next step.

HLF: The Uber partnership is just one of your initiatives as CDO. How did you come to lead MedStar’s digital programs?

Ruiz: I have 25 years experience in the IT sector. Most of my career has been involved in complex global systems integration mostly around analytics. About 10 years ago, I moved into the commercial space, working for Fortune 500 and Global 2000 companies, mostly in service-oriented architecture. Service-oriented architecture is plumbing or back-end for digital systems, which are those composed of mobile/social/cloud/analytics all based on user-centric design.

I came to MedStar about two years ago as a vendor to help lead MedStar’s digital transformation. I think about digital more holistically, and I was asked to take the position as their top digital guy. Digital is very much a top-of-the-house initiative. I partner with our Chief Innovation Officer and our Chief Information Officer to fundamentally re-imagine how we engage with patients.

HLF: Your title seems unusual for health care—we’ve never seen it before.

Ruiz: Other companies use different names. Some call it the Chief Patient Experience Officer or Chief Consumer Officer. They do many of the same initiatives I am doing. It’s about high levels of patient safety and quality in the context of a seamless and intuitive interaction for our patients.

I always look at the business and user needs first. I have studied what causes software failures. In IT, 70% of projects fail, usually due to poor understanding of what the end customer needs, wants and/or requires. Tech should start with the business opportunity and become the enabler of that. I am a gadget guy, but I force myself to ask: Is this the right technology, no matter how cool it is?

HLF: How is health care different from other industries you have worked in?

Ruiz: Health care is slow moving for sure, and risk-averse by nature. Things [like the Uber partnership], where you take a leap out of your comfort zone, are very hard. We are lucky to have a CEO who is extremely willing to try new things for our patients, and a leadership team that embraces that change. We invest very heavily in innovation, and we probably do it faster than most in this space.

Health care also is not like retail, where the goal is for every store to be exactly the same. At MedStar, there is no one thing that we do the same way at all our hospitals or ambulatory centers. There is a lot more customization on a site-by-site basis.

We have hospitals that are “crown jewel” hospitals, while others are small community hospitals, which have a very different capability set. You have to be mindful of the full scope of health care services that are customizable to each organization, so it is challenging from that perspective and it adds a new dimension to the problem.

HLF: What do you see as your overarching goal as CDO?

Ruiz: About eight years ago, MedStar started on a journey to what we call MedStar 2020. The idea is that health care is evolving, and it requires us to be more accessible in the community. Our mission is to provide a digital health care organization that engages our patients and their loved ones, and our providers. It really is about providing the highest quality, safest and most accessible health care experience possible. To do that in today’s world, information and the right use of information is crucial.

Our initial goals are as mundane as setting up online appointments across the system. Patients need to be able to work their health care needs into their busy lives in a seamless way. We are piloting online appointments, and about 25% of our doctors are now receiving them. By the end of the calendar year, most if not all will be able to do so. We are exploring a new telehealth option to provide care to patients in their own home. That is in internal pilot now, and is going well. There are a lot of other things we are doing, but I can’t talk about them at this point. They are all things focused on rethinking the user experience.

James Furbush is the Managing Editor of athenahealth’s Health Leadership Forum, where this blog first appeared.