The sight of taxi drivers around the world losing their livelihoods to Californian start-up Uber has created shock waves in professional circles.
“Who is next for uberfication?” is the buzz question – and the topic has become a staple of e-health medical conferences.
Professor Peter Fitzgerald of Stanford University recently warned the American College of Cardiology of the dangers of ignoring the Uber example:
“Today you swallow the inefficiencies and you just accept it. But, with these new technologies there is a vast improvement in efficiencies. You just need a 16-year-old to show you how to use it.”
Uber lets smartphone user hook up with a network of freelance drivers when they need a ride. In just five years it has become a $40 billion company.
Of course part of their success comes from undercutting traditional taxi drivers wages and there is an ethical issue in that. But Uber is not just competitive on price, it also competitive on service. Getting hold of an Uber driver is much easier than hunting for a cab in a street, or calling around minicab firms. Uber drivers are also encouraged to get out of their cab and open the door for their passengers. It’s the little extra touch that underlines their difference. And – whether we like it or not – experience shows that when there’s an advantage to be had ethical concerns often take second place.
An industry that’s too slow to pick up on new technologies? The parallel with the health sector is evident.
The uberfication of healthcare?
How many healthcare providers have bothered to provide online booking for their patients? Under 15% in most countries – despite opinion poll after opinion poll showing a clear demand.
Patients are typically left to their own devices – having to call around to find an appointment or discover whether their medical test results are ready.
The healthcare sector is lagging behind other industries in the adoption of new technologies – just as traditional taxi services did.
Where the analogy doesn’t hold up is comparing taxi rides with medical services.
We may happily put our ethical qualms aside and use an amateur taxi driver if it saves us money. Most of us wouldn’t trust our lives in the hands of anything less than the best available heart surgeon.
The disintegration of my middle-aged body recently gave me the opportunity to test my own susceptibility to Uberfication, as I looked for a range of previously unneeded medical services.
I quickly gave up phoning around for ophthalmology appointment (there’s a shortage of ophthalmologists where I live) and went for a clinic that provided me with online booking and an appointment in two weeks. They use qualified assistants rather than ophthalmologists for most of the eye tests, but as they use top of the range equipment, I figured the service was likely to be as good as any. Ophthalmologists will no doubt tell me I was wrong, but I was happy.
However when I needed a tooth pulling out, it seemed like too sensitive a task to be put in the hands of just the first dentist available. I sought out a personal recommendation from a friend, and went down the traditional route.
The Uber case is an alert to the health profession is that where there is a better, cheaper, more efficient service then the public will flock to it. The demise of traditional airlines in Europe in face of online-only competitors such Easyjet and Ryanair is another example.
The health sector is different but not that different. The threat to your health center today is not from an army of freelance cost-cutting cardiologists. The threat is from rival health centers who are just as professional you are, but also get the patient experience right.