Using rideshare as an ambulance? It may be cheaper, but is it safe?

Using rideshare as an ambulance? It may be cheaper, but is it safe?

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - An ambulance ride can cost you a pretty penny, so people are turning to ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft to get a trip to the hospital and cut their costs. Emergency personnel said it’s not worth putting your life at risk to save a buck.

Calling a ride has never been easier. A push of a button on your phone delivers a car to your door these days. But what about taking an Uber or Lyft to the hospital? It's happening more than you think.

"What's money when you're dead?" said Aaron Caldwell, " I would never let my wife or family wait for Uber in an emergency."

Caldwell told WMC Action News 5 that a neighbor of his called for a ride-share for his wife, instead of an ambulance, when she was in medical distress. The family had to wait for the vehicle to show up, but the woman made it to the hospital and survived.

Alexander Williams ordered a Lyft recently when his mom was feeling ill. He said he thought Lyft would respond quicker than an ambulance and most importantly, cost drastically less.

“She had chest pains, sickness, stuff like that,” said Williams, “Everybody doesn’t have a vehicle and the amount to pay with insurance for an ambulance. Anything can happen anywhere. Anything can happen in an ambulance.”

Ambulance rides can hit your pocketbook for hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

A 2017 study from The University of Kansas found Uber's entry into cities across the US cut ambulance volume by 7 percent, with ride-sharing services giving riders "cheaper transportation to the emergency room" and the option to "choose which hospital they'd like to go to" instead of what's closest.

WMC Action News 5 talked to two drivers who work for both Uber and Lyft. They wanted their faces hidden for fear they'd lose their jobs.

"The numbers are increasing of the passengers going to the ER," one driver said, "It's starting to concern me about the liability that I am accepting transporting them."

Both drivers told us they've seen an uptick in pickups both to and from hospitals, making them worried about their own safety and the safety of passengers if there is a true medical emergency.

“We are not medically trained,” another driver said, “That’s not part of our terms of service with the app. We are not supposed to provide medical care for a passenger...What are we supposed to do on the side of the highway if we were to pull over, and they have to wait on a medical vehicle to come help them?”

We requested numbers from the City of Memphis with respect to ambulance transports by the Memphis Fire Department. Uber and Lyft both launched in Memphis in 2014.

The statistics we found provide a contrast to the University of Kansas report and show the number of ambulance transports, at least locally, has climbed every year since 2010.

"When we get there not only are we there, but we can provide care right on the scene," said Alvin Benson, Chief of the Shelby County Fire Department.

The Shelby County Fire Department has operated ambulance service for two years. Benson said in that time county call volume has increased.

"Obviously if you're having a severe event, that's what 911 is for," said Benson.

Benson told WMC Action News 5 if you're feeling chest pain and showing signs of a stroke, you should be in an ambulance. The same is true for major injuries, if the patient is pregnant, and if there are concerns about mental status. But ultimately Benson said, the choice is a judgment call.

"There is a place, where that actual line certainly is subjective and an individual decision, but there is a place for people to use alternative means to get to the hospital," said Benson.

Based on the drivers' accounts it's possible people with broken bones, gashes or wounds, those who would've been driven to the hospital in a private vehicle anyway, are part of the uptick they're seeing.

Benson said 15 to 20 percent of the ambulance transports they make could've been handled alternatively.

"It really has to do with, when is it appropriate to call 911, and when is it appropriate to use an ambulance," he said.

In a statement Lyft referred WMC Action News 5 to their safety page where it states, "Lyft should not be used as substitute for emergency transportation. In any medical emergency, people should call 911."

We reached out to Uber multiple times and did not receive a response. But the company was quoted in a Slate Magazine article last year saying, “In the event of any medical emergency, we always encourage people to call 911.”

In the meantime the ride-share drivers told WMC Action News 5 they'll stay behind the wheel and hope a ride to seek help doesn't turn south on their watch.

"What if they have something internal that you cannot see and something was to happen to them in my vehicle," the driver said.

WMC Action News 5 talked to two different attorneys. Both acknowledged they didn’t think drivers would be liable in this situation, given the ride sharing services explicitly state they aren’t to be used for emergencies. But they agreed that wouldn’t necessarily stop a lawsuit from being filed.

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