To Uber or not to Uber?

That is the burning question on many — if not most — of our minds when working late, partying hard, exploring a new city or getting to and from the airport. And as a new research paper finds, Uber is also very much on the minds of folks experiencing medical emergencies in cities where the controversial ride-hailing app has a major presence.

In fact, the study — co-authored by University of Kansas economist David Slusky and Leon Moskatel, an internist at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego — reveals that between 2013 and 2015, per capita ambulance usage dropped by at least 7 percent in 766 American cities after Uber was introduced to each specific market.

While Uber and other ride-booking services don’t pose any sort of real threat to ambulance services, Moskatel tells the San Jose Mercury News he does expect that figure to rise in the coming years: “My guess is it will go up a little bit and stabilize at 10 to 15 percent as Uber continues to expand as an alternative for people.”

There are indeed significant benefits to ordering an Uber in lieu of calling 911.

For one, a ride to the ER in an Uber is generally far cheaper than a ride in an ambulance, which can cost hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars. Ride-hailing apps also enable passengers to select a hospital instead of being whisked off to the closest one via ambulance — an important consideration for those with insurance that may be accepted at one local hospital, but not another. In many cases, an Uber will also arrive more quickly than an ambulance in situations where speed is of the essence. (And almost always faster than a cab.) What’s more, ordering an Uber when experiencing a medical situation that’s less critical/acute/life-threatening, but in which driving yourself is still out of the question, can free up ambulances to respond to more dire medical emergencies around town. (Shorter ambulance wait times for those who truly need them are nothing but a good thing.)

"Given that even a reduction of a few minutes can drastically improve survival rates for serious conditions, this could be associated with a substantial welfare improvement," conclude Slusky and Mostakel in their research paper, which has yet to be peer-reviewed.

Adds Slusky: "In order to lower health care spending while improving health outcomes, people can use the least-skilled professional who is still qualified. It's the same in the provider space: you don't need a neurosurgeon to diagnose strep throat."

When a cab won't cut it

This all said, it can sometimes be a tough call when deciding whether to call 911 and request an ambulance or dial up an Uber. It’s very much circumstantial.

In 99.9 percent of situations, your Uber driver will not be a trained EMT and, in turn, cannot provide the critical medical attention you might require. The best she can do is put on some soothing music and maybe offer you a Band-Aid while hightailing it toward the nearest hospital. That is, of course, unless you just happen to wind up with a paramedic who moonlights in her Honda Accord as an Uber contractor and keeps all the appropriate life-saving accoutrements in the trunk. (Well hello, potential 1-hour network medical drama.)

Good rule of thumb: If you’re too sick to drive and require more urgent-than-not care but haven’t suffered a stroke or heart attack and aren’t bleeding profusely from a large superficial wound, then an Uber might be a good idea. If it’s the type of situation where you — or someone who's with you — think you need an ambulance, then you probably do. Needless to say, always err on the side of caution.

As Moskatel tells the Mercury News, a majority of patients “tend to be pretty good at assessing their state and how quickly they need to come in and how sick they are.”

Uber, however, is quick to distance itself from its newfound ambulance alternative status. “We’re grateful our service has helped people get to where they’re going when they need it the most,” says spokesperson Andrew Hasbun. “However, it’s important to note that Uber is not a substitute for law enforcement or medical professionals. In the event of any medical emergency, we always encourage people to call 911.”

Fair enough.

While Uber itself would rather you just call 911 if you need to get to a hospital or urgent care clinic tout de suite, it's worth noting that the study is something of a bright spot in an otherwise bleak year for the embattled San Francisco-headquartered company.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Ambulance usage declines in cities with Uber
New research from the University of Kansas finds that ride-booking apps have helped to free up ambulances.