Emergency? There’s an Uber 2 Minutes Away!

Laura Hanton looks into the worrying new culture of hailing an Uber over an ambulance because they arrive quicker, despite putting some drivers in an impossible position

In a worrying new phenomenon, a record number of people have been picking an Uber instead of calling an ambulance for their chosen method of transport to hospital. These revelations originate from a study by the University of Kansas, but with the UK’s national target for ambulance waiting times having been missed for four years running, it’s likely that a similar trend is appearing on our side of the pond.

“They simply cannot cope with the sheer pressure upon them”

National targets issued by the Department of Health dictate that ambulance services must reach 75% of life-threatening 999 calls within eight minutes: ailments falling into this category include stroke, cardiac arrest and airway obstruction. Yet reports on ambulance waiting times paint an unpalatable picture of our NHS in crisis. Figures from this winter are particularly bleak, with 58,845 people waiting longer than thirty minutes for an ambulance to arrive: 12,000 of those were left in limbo for over an hour. That is not to demean the relentless efforts of our ambulance services, who work tirelessly to provide such care: the reality is, they simply cannot cope with the sheer pressure upon them.

Catching a cab to the local A&E is by no means an unusual occurrence, with the classic tale of a woman giving birth in the back of a taxi almost commonplace. Neither is the concept particularly stupid: travelling by Uber would undoubtedly relieve pressure upon ambulance services, and free up paramedics for the most precarious of situations. Similarly, many people depend on ambulances as a method for travel simply because they have no alternative, with no access to personal or public transport: here is where taxis can swoop in and save the day.

Relying on an Uber also has the potential to hugely decrease rates of drunk driving and associated accidents. Consider a party where someone falls and hits their head, or a husband who downed a few pints before his wife unexpectedly began contractions. With the immediacy and reliability of taxi services like Uber, nobody needs to endanger lives by driving drunk in a panicked state of urgency.

The problem arises when the passengers involved are really unwell, seriously injured, or in desperate need of medical attention. When we aren’t talking about a bang to the head, a fractured wrist or even labour, which is notoriously painfully slow. We’re talking about a heart attack, haemorrhage, or general mess of blood and guts and gore. This is when the serious drawbacks of Uber-over-ambulance come to life, beginning not least with the taxi driver themselves, who responds to the call unaware of what awaits them.

“The guilt of refusing would be painful, but the burden of responsibility should they accept the ride would arguably be even worse”

Primarily, they are faced with the overwhelming moral dilemma over whether or not to transport an injured or ailing individual, knowing full-well that they could decline or even die whilst en-route. The guilt of refusing would be painful, but the burden of responsibility should they accept the ride would arguably be even worse. Moreover, with taxis not permitted to bypass traffic or run red lights, the journey could end up taking a whole lot longer than it would via ambulance, ramping up the likelihood of the patient’s deterioration. And who knows what the legal ramifications are in this kind of situation?

It’s a tricky issue, with arguments either side standing strong, yet the vulnerable position in which the Uber driver is placed is likely to sway opinion against this new trend. In an ideal world, an ambulance would respond – within minutes – to anyone in need, but with the mounting pressures on our health system set only to rise, it’s unlikely those evasive targets will be met any time soon.

“Nobody should be left in a potentially life-threatening condition for over an hour”

Alternatives do exist, such as Community First Responders who are first-aid trained volunteers dispatched to emergencies within their local area: they provide medical care themselves or simply bridge the gap until an ambulance arrives. It goes without saying that nobody should be left in a potentially life-threatening condition for over an hour, and that this is a concern that needs immediate confrontation, but maybe alternatives should be expanded before we start relying on unknowing Uber drivers.

Laura Hanton


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