Health Care Providers Working to Streamline Transportation Services for Patients

  • Author: Edward Graham
  • Date: January 20, 2022
Part of
Courtesy of Upper Allegheny Health System

For too many Americans, the lack of affordable, reliable, and accessible public transportation presents a significant barrier to accessing critically needed health services. 

Whether it’s missed appointments, delayed surgical procedures, or canceled check-ups, limited transportation options keep at-risk patients from getting the care they need. A 2020 report from the American Hospital Association found that approximately 5.8 million people across the country delayed medical care because they did not have transportation—a growing trend that only exacerbates existing disparities in the health care sector. 

In order to streamline access to medical care for their patients, health care providers across the U.S. have begun offering no-cost transit services to ensure that individuals from all walks of life are not delaying medical care as a result of limited transportation options. Whether it’s operating their own transportation services for patients, or partnering with local public transit authorities and outside companies, these providers are working to tackle the transportation-related disparities that keep too many patients from adequately addressing their medical needs. 

Clinics offer free transportation services to better serve their patients

Last year, Family Health Services (FHS)—a federally qualified medical center that operates clinics in Sandusky and Norwalk, Ohio—launched a transportation service to address the growing number of no-show medical appointments at their locations.

Lydia Brennan, FHS’s clinical site manager for Erie County, said one of the benefits of the transportation service is that it has provided greater insight into the needs of their patients.

“One of the huge things we’re finding out through the transportation program is that a lot of our patients are homebound,” Brennan said. “That allows us to send a nurse or provider to do a home visit too, because it’s hard for them to just call a taxi or come in on their own. And we’re finding these things out through the transportation program, which allows us to help them out even more.”

FHS currently operates two vehicles—an 18-passenger van and a wheelchair-accessible van—and is hoping to acquire another vehicle that is lower to the ground and can better accommodate patients who need to take just one step when getting on or getting off transportation. 

Other clinics, such as the Kheir Clinic in Los Angeles, have operated their own no-cost transportation services for several years now. The primary care clinic, which was first established in 1986 to serve LA’s non-English speaking Korean community and now serves underserved populations across Southern California, also launched its transportation program to address the lack of accessible transportation services for its patients. 

The clinic initially targeted the service to pregnant, disabled, and elderly patients, along with those individuals who continuously missed appointments and had high no-show rates. Now with four vehicles—split between Kheir’s clinics and adult day health care centers—the transportation service, which is available for free to all of the clinic’s patients, has evolved to meet the needs of the community. And Kheir continually works to screen patients for transportation challenges in order to provide the most comprehensive transportation services available to those in need.

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the clinic was also able to utilize its vehicles to deliver hot meals and groceries to seniors and low-income patients who otherwise lacked access to safe and healthy food—providing patients who could not otherwise access transportation with the at-home essentials they needed. 

“Providing a point-to-point service with a van of our own helps with the immediate issue of getting patients to their appointments, but it got us thinking about transportation as a social determinant of health and how it affects patients—not just accessing medical care, but also their ability to access fresh and nutritious food, their ability to get to their jobs, and their ability to get to safe places to play and exercise,” said Kirby Rock, Kheir Clinic’s vice president of external affairs.

Partnerships allow health care providers to enhance transportation services

Every day, ArchCare—the Archdiocese of New York’s healthcare system—cares for over 9,000 seniors, low-income, and special needs individuals across the New York City region. As part of its work, ArchCare operates a community-based health program, known as the Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE), that serves individuals over the age of 55 who require nursing-home-level care but reside outside of traditional nursing home settings. 

Earlier this year, ArchCare partnered with Ride Health—a medical transportation coordination platform—to provide non-emergency transportation for its PACE participants. Although ArchCare operated its own transportation service prior to partnering with Ride Health, it required a significant amount of internal manpower to manage the program and did not provide any insights into PACE participants’ rides. 

Elizabeth Rosado, Vice President of PACE at ArchCare, said Ride Health’s user-friendly platform made it easier for their coordinators to arrange rides and watch patients get picked up and dropped off in real time. Ride Health provides the drivers and transportation, all free of charge to the PACE participants, and drivers receive ArchCare training on how to transport the riders—including information on how to communicate with riders who may be confused or disoriented. Through the partnership, Ride Health now provides approximately 200 rides each day for PACE participants. 

“Not only do they do curb-to-curb pickups and drop-offs, but they do door-to-door and hand-to-hand,” Rosado said. “That was very important to me because, for this type of population, there’s a lot of dementia, and you can’t just drop someone off at the curb and hope they’ll make it home. And they also do two-man carry, which is important to me because many of the buildings in New York City don’t have elevators, so getting someone who lives on the third floor to the first floor can be a challenge.”

Besides working with technology-oriented transportation companies to streamline their no-cost services, health care providers are also partnering with local public transit authorities to enhance transportation services for patients and visitors alike. 

The Upper Allegheny Health System (UAHS), which includes Olean General Hospital in southwestern New York and Bradford Regional Medical Center in northwestern Pennsylvania, partnered last May with the Area Transportation Authority of North Central Pennsylvania (ATA) to provide free transportation services between the two hospitals and associated medical centers. The agreement came after UAHS implemented a transformation plan that decreased the number of hospital beds in Bradford and moved surgical services to Olean, necessitating the need to strengthen transportation services between the two hospitals. 

After connecting with ATA, UAHS originally structured the transportation service as a same-day, two-hour advance registration program. Because of low usage, UAHS restructured the program as an on-demand service, utilizing ATA vans embossed with the names of the two hospitals. Patients can call a toll-free number to schedule rides up to two weeks in advance. Same-day, priority transportation is also offered to in-patient visitors at Olean. 

UAHS also initially looked at ATA’s usage and bus schedule to determine the drop-off and pick-up locations to utilize for patients and their families. As the program has grown, so too has the scope of potential destinations. Anyone traveling between the hospitals and medical centers can now access all of ATA’s stops, provided that they have scheduled the trip in advance. 

“Any non-emergency patient or visitor is able to use any of the bus stops in McKean County to access our campus and any of our subsidiaries in Olean,” said Melissa Sullivan, UAHS’s vice president of clinical and support services. “So patients are able to have access to a much larger bandwidth of medical services at no cost.”

While the inter-state barrier provided the biggest obstacle in terms of streamlining transportation access, Sullivan said ATA was able to think outside the box to make the service work. And even as the transportation service has helped to bridge the gap between the two hospitals, Sullivan said it’s important that more people learn about the free transportation program.

“It’s a service that needs to grow,” Sullivan said. “We just need to constantly communicate it and make sure the community and our resources are knowledgeable about it.”

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