Uber Health launches grocery and OTC meds delivery service as it expands deeper into healthcare

Uber's healthcare arm has added grocery and over-the-counter pharmacy product delivery to its growing list of services.

The move comes just two months after it rolled out same-day prescription delivery services as the ride-share giant leverages its logistics muscle and mobility solutions to deepen its relationships with providers and payers.

Payers and providers nationwide will be able to use the same platform they already use for nonemergency medical transportation (NEMT) and prescription delivery to have groceries and OTC items delivered directly to patient homes, facilitated by Uber Eats, according to the company in a press release. The service is slated to roll out for the 2024 benefit year, executives said.

Health systems and other healthcare organizations can now use Uber Health for a range of services, from getting patients and members to primary care appointments to shipping prescription medications and healthy food to their front doors.

The expansion builds on the company's existing work to rethink the logistics of care—improving patient access and experience while simplifying things on the back end for health plans and providers. 

"Candidly, this is why I came to Uber. Having worked in value-based care for 10 years where, as a benefit manager, I realized, one, how frequently patients needed transportation, prescriptions delivered, groceries and over-the-counter goods, and, two, how hard it was to navigate the black box of supplemental benefits," said Caitlin Donovan, global head of Uber Health, in an interview. "I realized Uber had the assets to string together to solve that problem with our large network of independent drivers and independent couriers. We've been working on putting those assets together in a way that worked for the healthcare ecosystem since I got here."

Uber tapped Donovan two years ago to lead its growing healthcare business. An operations executive, Donovan previously worked at MyOrthos, an orthodontic services organization, where she served as chief operating officer. She also brought to Uber experience in the NEMT business as she served as executive vice president of operations at LogistiCare (now ModivCare), the nation's largest manager of NEMT programs for state governments and managed care organizations.

Uber Health launched in 2018 primarily focused on streamlining NEMT options to help get patients to and from medical appointments.

In August 2020, Uber Health made its first foray into medication delivery through a partnership with NimbleRx

Uber Health's logistics support and benefits coordination can play a key role in value-based care programs, Donovan noted.

There is a lot of administrative complexity associated with value-based care and population health programs, particularly the utilization of supplemental benefits. Providers and payers, including Medicare and Medicaid, lack the visibility and infrastructure to execute on these programs effectively. As a result, patients—many of whom belong to underserved or vulnerable populations—face a lot of friction in the healthcare system and are often forced to coordinate their own transportation to and from appointments or find a way to access critical prescriptions and healthy food.

According to Donovan, Uber Health's platform streamlines coordination across multiple benefits—NEMT, prescription delivery and food and OTC medication delivery, helping payers and providers support patients beyond the four walls of a medical office.

"When you think about the common things that patients need to stay healthy outside the four walls of a clinic, it's often transportation to get back and forth from the clinic and access to prescriptions, which is often more cost-effective if you deliver them versus providing a ride to and from the pharmacy. Also, making sure they have healthy food available and accessible both in terms of physical access and the ability to navigate what is healthy and affordable," she said. "What we found is most health plans agree with that. If you look at Medicare and Medicaid, and what is covered in most managed care organizations, you tend to find coverage for transportation, you tend to find that they want patients to be adherent to their medications. And, you tend to find coverage for grocery and OTC benefits as well."

She added, "Our aim here was to make a one-stop-shop to make it frictionless from the patient's standpoint. Also, from the provider standpoint, we want to make more transparent the black box of what's available to those patients. And, from the insurer's standpoint, we want to make it easier to incorporate into their networks a player that can provide access to all of those things in one place."

Unlike Uber's consumer-facing app, its healthcare enterprise software is web-based and designed for care coordinators and case managers.

"We found that patients who are most in need typically don't have the know-how or financial means to navigate the system on their own and need someone to help do it for them," Donovan noted. "Care coordinators can tap into our Uber Eats infrastructure, which includes restaurants, but much more importantly, grocery, retail and convenience stores to request the things that a patient needs that match what is nutritionally appropriate for them on their behalf."

Patients then receive a text message or a landline phone call that provides the details on their grocery or OTC product delivery.

Uber Health also is focused on leveraging its work to provide the infrastructure for benefits coordination to improve transparency into members' benefits. The company plans to roll out a service that gives providers access to patient benefit data and eligibility files from payers, allowing them to leverage existing benefit structures and deploy services that can be covered by insurance.

That service will roll out in 2024, Donovan said.

Uber Health's rollout of its grocery delivery service for patients coincides with a growing food-as-medicine movement. An economic evaluation of the potential of medically tailored meals for patients published in JAMA Network Open last year concluded that these programs could be “be associated with approximately 1.6 million averted hospitalizations and net cost savings of $13.6 billion annually.”

"We're so excited to see the investment in food as medicine. We think that our approach allows organizations to scale some of these programs, which have historically been stopped in pilot mode. We can provide that one-stop-shop because typically those that have access issues to nutritious food also have other access issues. And, we can also tap directly into those insurance benefits, which are so complicated to navigate," Donovan said.

More than 3,000 healthcare customers like Boston Medical Center and ModivCare work with Uber Health to provide access to rides to medical appointments, according to the company.

The company's healthcare business unit is seeing rapid growth with increasing demand for  patient transportation, critical deliveries and other mobility solutions across the healthcare industry. Uber reported 71% gross bookings growth for the business unit from the fourth quarter of 2020 to the end of 2021. From early 2021 to 2022, the business unit's gross bookings grew an additional 75% year over year, Uber reported.

Last year, at the HLTH conference, Uber Health announced it was going to make a push into the employer market. Donovan told Fierce Healthcare at the time that the lessons learned in Medicaid and Medicare Advantage are applicable in the employer space, too.

In an interview with Yahoo News, Donovan also said Uber Health was exploring using its services for specialized meals and medical devices.

The ride-hailing giant’s biggest competitor, Lyft, also stepped into healthcare with its own NEMT business, created two years before Uber Health. The company expanded its services in 2021 to include NEMT paid for by the health organization.

Donovan said Uber's healthcare arm will continue to focus on providing that last-mile logistics support.

"Looking at Uber's core competencies, we have a very large network of independent drivers and independent couriers and great marketplace technology. So, where is there a need for those things? We saw the need across these four supplemental benefits because there was an overlap in the need for patients and a need for transparency," she said. "You can expect to see from us continued progress across those lines. I think we'll be spending a lot of time on making sure that we're solving for the transparency and access issues that will make this process more convenient for all."