Jim Gearhart

by Jim Gearhart

Giving Healthcare Research a Ride

The ride-sharing economy has made transportation more convenient in almost any situation. It allows for easy trips to the airport, across town, just about anywhere. Now it’s helping test whether easy transportation improves preventative healthcare.

Last year, Dr. Owen Garrick from Bridge Clinical Research and Dr. Marcella Alsan from Stanford University started exploring ways to encourage African American men to seek routine care. “The idea was to get black men to do their annual physicals, their checkups, to have a relationship with a physician or a nurse practitioner, whatever they consider their medical home,” Dr. Garrick said. Routine checkups could help address the disproportionate effects that African American men suffer from chronic illnesses, such as diabetes or hypertension.

Dr. Alsan has an appreciation for why African American men might avoid the healthcare system. She researched and co-authored a report on the legacy of mistrust that the decades-long “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” left behind when it was publicized in 1972. Dr. Alsan’s report showed how mistrust correlated with less use of health care and worsening health outcomes.

Now she is looking for ways to reverse that trend.

In focus groups of black men, transportation challenges came up frequently as an obstacle to getting primary care. With a small study in the community, Drs. Garrick and Alsan decided to test whether removing that obstacle would have an effect. They spent a series of weekends visiting barbershops in northern California neighborhoods and quickly had more than 200 participants for a pilot study. Then, after they set up a clinic to treat whoever arrived, the researchers needed a mode of transportation. That was where Uber came in.

“Literally, this was probably a five minute conversation [with San Francisco-based Uber],” Dr. Garrick said. Once the ride-sharing service understood what the study required, Dr. Garrick said the company’s response was, “‘We’re in. Let us know what you want.’ It was that fast.”

This partnership made it easy for the researchers to track how responsive the men were to the offer of ride service. The company’s mobile phone system could report how many people requested between the clinic and the neighborhoods. Garrick and Alsan are processing the results, and will set up an expanded version this year.

The researchers are analyzing information from their pilot study, and plan to use the results to inform a larger version, with around 2,000 subjects, later this year. “We really want to test whether black guys actually go to the doctor if getting there becomes easier,” said Dr. Garrick. “Not that they might, that they’re interested, that they said that they would go, but that they actually go.”

Dr. Garrick is enthusiastic about the potential of this research: “With these issues, with this population, really getting and seeking and being comfortable with preventative health care, it could have some real life impact.”

So ride sharing is no longer just about helping people find ways to get home—it also might help people find ways to get healthier.

 

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