Lyft passengers and drivers in a Lyft ride on Feb. 3, 2016 in San Francisco, California.
Lyft passengers and drivers in a Lyft ride on Feb. 3, 2016 in San Francisco, California. - 
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Health care is big business, and ride-sharing companies are moving aggressively to expand their reach and revenues. Companies like Uber and Lyft, as well as health-transportation startups, are developing partnerships with health care providers, deploying new ride-calling apps, and beefing up management ranks in their healthcare divisions

At Ride Connection, a social-service agency based in Portland, Oregon, it's easy to see how promising the business of providing transportation to help get people to their medical appointments can be.  

The agency connects people who don’t have a car or can’t drive with free rides — in the agency’s own sedans and vans, volunteers’ vehicles, and sometimes taxis. Many clients are elderly or disabled, and executive director Julie Wilcke said Ride Connection may be their only way to get to a doctor’s office, physical therapy appointment or pharmacy, not to mention to the bank, hairdresser or church.

“Those that we serve, they can’t necessarily afford a taxi on their own, or Uber or Lyft,” she said.

Fortunately for the ride-sharing companies, insurers, including Medicaid and some Medicare Advantage plans, are increasingly willing to pick up the tab for trips to get medical care.

A lot of patients miss appointments — upwards of 30 percent, according to a report by SCI Solutions, a health care technology firm. 

Citing the same report, David Baga, Lyft’s chief business officer, pointed out how much is at stake for providers: “These missed appointments cost the health care industry over $150 billion a year,” he said. That’s from wasted time and effort by health care providers and patients having poorer health and quality of life when they don’t get care.

Baga explained that Lyft’s medical service doesn't require patients to initiate the ride request or pay for it. “Patients aren't calling these rides from their own Lyft app,” he said. “The health system or the provider arranges them through Lyft Concierge. This works especially well for elderly people or those who don’t have smartphones at all.”

Lyft told CNBC recently that its medical-ride volume tripled from the third quarter of 2017 to the third quarter of 2018, and it sees the potential for more growth.

Sandy Markwood at the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging cited a survey recently published by her organization that found getting to medical appointments was the top transportation need for 72 percent of older adults. Getting groceries came in second, followed by getting to the pharmacy.

“Transportation is really a linchpin for older adults in their health and wellness,” Markwood said. According to the AARP Public Policy Institute, 1 in 5 people over the age of 65 don’t drive— many for health reasons. And Markwood said that percentage rises dramatically over the age of 80.

“What’s going to be key and critical is being able to have trained drivers who understand people who have physical limitations, as well as people who have cognitive limitations,” Markwood said.

Jared Hines has been driving for Uber and Lyft in Portland, Oregon, since 2015. He estimates he’s done about 4,000 rides to date, including many to take patients to medical appointments. He said it’s important for drivers to be attendant to these riders’ needs.

“There was a gentleman that had a big brace on his hand, and I didn’t put two and two together fast enough to realize that I needed to help him with the sliding door in my van,” Hines said. “There was a woman I picked up who was elderly who needed help putting on her seat belt. And it was somewhat awkward, in the sense to say ‘OK, I need to reach around you to put the belt in the buckle.’”

Hines said he’d welcome more guidance from the ride-sharing companies he drives for. “There’s certainly a limit to our training,” he said. “What if somebody actually goes into some more serious physical condition while they’re in your car. Then what do you do, call an ambulance?”

Lyft’s David Baga said the company isn’t planning specific driver training for medical rides. He said the company’s business focus is to increase routine non-emergency trips to get people to their doctor’s appointments on time.

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Follow Mitchell Hartman at @entrepreneurguy