There are plenty of everyday tasks that technically don’t require a human, except to drive a car associated with that task. For those with transportation limitations, these tasks that many take for granted can prove to be a logistical nuisance. For example, going to the pharmacy can potentially take all day for those who are mobility-challenged. With non-emergency autonomous vehicles, these clients can focus on getting well rather than trying to get to the pharmacy. In turn, the NEMT service providers who help get this done don’t have to divert a driver to serve as a courier.
More medically-compromised people have access to health insurance and health coverage thanks to programs such as The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Autonomous vehicles in NEMT could be a bridge that fills the gap between those who need medical care and cannot drive and their local medical community, especially for those who are independent enough not to need a driver’s assistance with anything but transportation. The boom of these new members as a result of ACA has meant some serious staffing issues for some providers, but autonomous vehicles in NEMT could help meet that growing need and possibly address it before it ever becomes an issue.
Tools that remove barriers from people with transportation challenges are how we all do better in NEMT. While tools do exist currently to help empower them, such as patient portals for non-emergency medical transportation apps and software, it’s important to always look for innovation. Autonomous vehicles further remove transportation barriers for segments of people who are most likely to miss medical appointments because they cannot get from point A to point B and back. The cost of care for those people who miss doctor's appointments increases dramatically. Not only is there a loss of revenue from medical facilities, but generally, those people who miss their appointments require additional care, which is costly for the system.
Several things are at play. First is the idea that autonomous vehicles can serve a role in healthcare by filling in where an in-person driver isn’t necessary. The human element is important for those using NEMT that are at risk while they travel. For example, those at risk for seizures or falls can benefit from an in-person driver to help them out if either should occur. On the other hand, someone with sight difficulties that is otherwise independently mobile might not need any in-person assistance.
The second factor involves the removal of cost barriers by those who would control an autonomous vehicle or fleet. Right now, providers pay a driver to pick up all clients. With autonomous vehicles, the cost of paying the driver, insurance, benefits, and other expenses could significantly decrease while still delivering high-quality service. Freeing these funds for providers could mean they could allocate them elsewhere to improve their service offerings further.
The third aspect is that we are at the cusp of a significant change in demographics. The expectation is that within ten or so years, an aging population will soon outnumber the working adult population. Proactive management and strategic planning now mean an easier transition to providing transportation for people with limited mobility, developmental, and cognitive conditions. Autonomous vehicles could help prepare NEMT businesses to handle this increase in volume without hiring drivers when there isn’t yet a full need for them. Some more otherwise independent seniors wouldn’t need in-person help, and having a non-emergency autonomous vehicle could provide a convenient option that preserves that independence further.
Providers with an autonomous fleet could potentially have more in-person drivers available where they’re needed most and have more funds available to them in the long run, all while offering an option that could potentially make those who are independent, except for driving, feel like that independence is more preserved. Ultimately, it means that NEMT providers have an opportunity to create an entirely new sub-division of their service offerings that can better serve pre-existing needs and anticipate needs that could arise in the future. While it may be far off, there’s even the possibility that with the right NEMT software integrations, these autonomous fleets could have entire schedules uploaded to them without ever once needing user input from the provider.
Source: National Library of Medicine