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Uber's next stop: Delivering food and pills to needy patients

Anjalee Khemlani
Senior Reporter

Uber (UBER) is planning to use its dominance in the fast-growing food delivery industry to carve a toehold in the vast and complex health services sector.

At the CB Insights Future of Health conference this week, the ride-sharing giant’s health chief explained how the company is moving to leverage Uber Eats to address very specific needs of patients that lack access to reliable transportation, or simply can’t get around on their own.

According to Dan Trigub, the head of Uber Health, the idea has been brewing for years at the company, which launched a drug store delivery platform around the same time as Uber Eats. The latter clearly took off faster than the former, which meant resources were diverted to building up its food delivery business.

Uber Health’s focus has been on partnering with providers and transportation brokers to get patients to and from appointments. Currently, the company doesn’t have the infrastructure to bill health plans or a government payor, Trigub said.

But once that detail is figured out, Uber plans to perform tasks like deliver food and prescriptions to patients who need it.

FILE - In this March 15, 2017, file photo, an Uber car drives through LaGuardia Airport in New York. Uber offering to take patients in every U.S. market where it operates to their next medical appointment. The ride-hailing service said Thursday, March 1, 2018, that its Uber Health business will handle rides set up by doctor's offices or other health care providers and then bill that business, not the patient, for the service. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

No ‘Big Macs’

According to Trigub, the idea’s basics involve how to “leverage our Uber Eats infrastructure.” It also involves helping facilitate healthy eating choices for patients, he added.

“How do we allow plans to have a curated meal that they want to get to their plan member,” Trigub asked. “You don’t want to be sending Big Macs to a diabetic patient.”

The concept is already being bolstered by a wide range of healthy food delivery and prepared meals. Also, Meals on Wheels — which has been serving the most vulnerable senior populations for years — is also very competitive in the space. But the organization says bringing food to patients is more involved than what it seems.

Uber Health’s idea is laudable, but “very different that what Meals on Wheels is doing,” Lucy Theilheimer, Meals on Wheels’ chief strategy and impact officer, told Yahoo Finance in an interview.

Meals on Wheels not only delivers meals, she explained, but also uses volunteers and staff to conduct “in-home assessments of what the needs are of these individuals, what their activity limitations may be, the volunteers are trained to engage with and have some social human contact with the seniors.”

Along with providing food, the organization’s staffers “are doing safety checks in the home and identifying if there are fall risks and hazards, connecting them to other services that may help them to stay independent in the home,” Theilheimer added. “They’ve been serving as those ‘eyes and ears in the home’ for decades as part of what they do.”

So while Uber and others can fill needs for a specific demographic — such as a person recovering from surgery or an extended hospital stay — the population most in need could be left out, Theilheimer suggested.

“I think there are a lot of people in the for-profit world...that see this as a business opportunity,” she told Yahoo Finance. “Because everybody’s trying to figure out how to solve this problem of high cost, high needs, complex care patients, and a lot of them tend to be seniors” who lack the resources to pay for added services.

‘Extremely difficult’

Uber’s Trigub, who previously worked at Lyft and boosted its health division, said Uber is looking to utilize its massive network of drivers and expand into rural areas, focus on prescription delivery, and ensure a greater population is served by the network.

The company has already tested some of these ideas in select markets, previously.

Making inroads into rural areas, especially for rides to doctors or hospitals, has a lot to do with the driver population, he said. However, Uber sees potential in greater focus on the health care needs outside the busy metros.

The idea to push into pill delivery is similar — to partner with the retail and local pharmacies — to give consumers access through the popular ride-hailing app.

However, it’s a tough market, and Trigub is acutely aware of the barriers to entry.

“Pharmacy delivery is extremely difficult, highly regulated,” he said.

“It’s not something that you could just jump into tomorrow. We think we’re very well-positioned, given the infrastructure we have and the resources we have to really long-term be a big player in this space.”