RIP 'Uber of healthcare' 

The phrase "Uber of healthcare," a once-aspirational analogy for a single, winning, disruptive force in healthcare, has officially died. 

The industry's anticipation of the "Uber of healthcare" was akin to the world's waiting for Y2K: The hype was there, the result was not. Uber was founded in 2009. In summer 2021, competent healthcare leaders know they need a different prototype for this analogy to possibly hold weight. 

Although "Uber of healthcare" was on the decline for years — with fewer minds finding the analogy compelling, appealing or exciting — its official cause of death in summer 2021 was the combination of ride-hailing companies' soaring prices, longer wait times and frustrated customers. The analogy worked when the experience, measured by convenience, cost and access, was unmatched. 

But to call any healthcare player the "Uber of healthcare" today means its customer experience involves a dawdling looking-for-driver page, a 23-minute wait and five cancellations before the 1.7 mile ride that costs $38.45. To be clear, this isn't necessarily worse than the average experience in healthcare, but it is what the industry wanted to get away from. 

The broken ride-hailing experience is the result of a long break in use of these apps that was caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The disruptors got disrupted, so to say, as the pandemic tested the gig economy and the role consumers play in ensuring fair competition.

By early 2021, ride-hailing apps were down drivers, and they've struggled to recuperate. Uber reported that it had 22 percent fewer drivers in the first quarter compared with the same period last year, according to The New York Times. As customers got vaccinated, demand rebounded and exceeded the supply of drivers and cars. The result? More expensive fares. Research firm Rakuten Intelligence found the cost of rides on Uber and Lyft was about 40 percent greater in April than a year before, according to the Times

Gad Allon, PhD, professor in the department of operations, information and decisions at the Wharton School in Philadelphia, pinpoints the biggest transformation in ride-hailing from the pandemic: drivers' realization that working for a gig platform isn't all that great.

Dr. Allon has studied the gig economy for years, identifying a decision-making effect called "inertia behavior," in which the more drivers work, the more likely they are to continue working, according to a Knowledge@Wharton article. The pandemic's forced pause halted that hustle, creating inertia among the drivers.

Drivers' pay, conditions and treatment overall worsened over time as Uber scaled back spending during the run-up to its IPO in 2019, Dr. Allon posits. Now, as the company tries to bring drivers back with promises of more money through surge pricing and incentives, many drivers question whether the juice is worth the squeeze. 

"The drivers are saying, 'Well, we've been to that movie already. We've seen you trying to lure us in. Once we're in, you're going to remove these benefits, you're going to remove these advantages, and we're going to be stuck again doing many, many short rides for very low pay,'" Dr. Allon said. "Tell us how this time it's different."

Dr. Allon said drivers will return, drawn in by pay, but ride-hailing companies will still need to reexamine the diminishing returns of their employment model, noting that drivers have long memories and will remember how they were treated in the past.

The strongest healthcare leaders build sound strategies, foster creativity and drive new thinking when they point to models, forces and inspirations that endure. For years, people focused on what healthcare was not by pointing to what the gig economy was, treating the latter as the clever, straight-A student in the class who figured out in a couple years what hardworking healthcare did not. 

Uber's instability and problematic labor model is but one example of how businesses built upon short-term contracts make for poor analogies to healthcare. The quality of medical care and treatment one receives is the longest and most consequential contract of their life. It's almost a miracle that "Uber of healthcare" caught on in the first place, as the discrepancies between the two are so glaring. 

RIP, "Uber of healthcare." Thanks for reminding us of the need to improve healthcare in ways that last. 


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