Chicago Hospital Offers Patients Free Transportation to Address Health Inequalities

  • Author: Edward Graham
  • Date: November 23, 2021
A group of Sinai Hospital employees involved with their shuttle, stand around the new service's vehicles.
A group of Sinai Hospital employees involved with their shuttle, stand around the new service's vehicles.

All too often, the lack of affordable and reliable transportation prevents at-risk patients—particularly those from vulnerable communities—from accessing critically needed health services.

According to a 2020 report from the American Hospital Association, roughly 5.8 million people across the U.S. do not receive medical care as a result of transportation issues stemming from issues as varied as inadequate infrastructure, transit costs, and travel time.

These transportation constraints frequently lead to missed and canceled appointments, infrequent medical check-ups, and limited access to other wellness programs. But a new program at Sinai Chicago seeks to alleviate some of these concerns by offering patients free, door-to-door  transportation services to meet their health needs.

Free transportation program helps patients better access care

In order to effectively address the mobility concerns of their patients, Sinai Chicago—located in the city’s West Side—began to engage with focus groups and other local stakeholders to better understand the needs of their community. On a parallel track, Sinai Chicago also looked at a similar transportation service in neighboring Cook County that offers patients free rides to doctor’s appointments and visits.

After identifying transportation gaps and inadequacies in their region—including finding that 17 percent of patients identified through their outreach efforts had missed appointments as a result of reliable transportation services—Sinai Chicago worked with emergency medical services provider Superior Air-Ground Ambulance Service to come up with a strategy to provide all patients of the hospital system with free, door-to-door access to non-emergency medical transit services.

Instead of offering a more limited transportation service for patients, Sinai Chicago worked to develop a program that could blanket their health system’s entire service area. Since Superior has a decades-long relationship with Sinai Chicago and already provides emergency transportation services for the hospital system, it made sense for the hospital to partner with them for this new wide-reaching transportation service.

“This program features a fleet of dedicated vehicles and dedicated drivers specifically meant to pick up patients at home addresses coming in for diagnostic testing, outpatient, doctor appointments, any sort of visits that they have historically had difficulty in arranging for transportation,” Mary Franco, Vice President of Superior Air-Ground Ambulance Service, said in a statement.

Early data shows access to free transportation increases wellness check-ups

Since the program launched on September 15th, Sinai Chicago has already seen a noticeable increase in access to care. In the first six weeks that the free transportation service was offered, Superior provided 2,400 different rides across the region. Over that same period, the number of skipped and canceled appointments across Sinai Chicago’s system decreased by approximately eight percent.

Because Superior uses data to streamline its services, Sinai Chicago has been able to track a variety of metrics—including utilization by zip codes, pickup and destination locations, and travel times—to track the success of the service and identify areas of needed improvement.

“Looking at the data, we’ve noticed that cancellations and no-shows in key areas have gone down,” Denise Walker, the vice president for ambulatory and hospitality services at Sinai Chicago, said. “It means that people are getting access to high-quality, timely care that lends itself to overall wellness. When you think about health disparities and the glaring light the pandemic shined on inequality, I think this is going to be huge and a big win for the community that we serve.”

To book a ride, patients simply need to call ahead  to reserve a spot in the provided vans, which offers them door-to-door service to and from their appointments. Since the program covers the hospital system’s entire region, there are few limits on the types of services that users can access. Walker said the program is designed to increase access to a wide range of medical services beyond just doctor’s appointments and check-ins, including providing patients with transportation to and from prenatal classes and other available wellness services that the hospital system offers.

“We’re not just using this for medical appointments,” Walker said. “If you’re coming to our health system for any reason, then we want this to be a service that you can leverage.”

Moving forward, Sinai Chicago hopes to use the collected data on the program to more effectively streamline the service and tie it more closely with patient outcomes. And the hospital system, Superior, and community partners are all hoping to spread the word about the transportation service to better address health inequalities across the region.

“This is such an amazing project that the health system is taking on,” Franco said. “I think this is going to be a game changer for people in the surrounding communities to have access to free transportation that Sinai Chicago will now provide.”


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