Without the proper insurance, a trip in an ambulance can be an expensive affair. A new study carried out by economists at the University of Kansas (UK) suggests that more people are avoiding these costs by turning to Uber when the situation isn't too dire, and that reducing the reliance on ambulances in this way could have its benefits when its comes to medical care.

In its relatively short (and controversial) existence, Uber has firmly established itself in cities all over the world, with more than five billion trips logged across its seven-year history. With more and more people whipping out their phones and summoning those little car-toony icons, UK economist David Slusky and Leon Moskatel from Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego started to wonder what kind of impact this was having on ambulance usage across the US.

So the pair investigated ambulance rates in 766 US cities from 43 different states as Uber entered the market between 2013 and 2015. The team found that across the board, taking into account the fact that Uber typically enters markets sporadically over a number of years, it reduced per capita ambulance usage rates by at least seven percent.

"In order to lower health care spending while improving health outcomes, people can use the least-skilled professional who is still qualified," says David Slusky. "It's the same in the provider space, you don't need a neurosurgeon to diagnose strep throat. Many patients don't need something that can break traffic laws and don't need something staffed by paramedics with a bunch of fancy equipment."

The researchers did consider the possibility that the presence of Uber in a city could reduce the number of ambulance trips by reducing the prevalence of crashes, drunk drivers, or both. They say that the evidence remains unclear on this front, and that the more likely reason is that people are taking up the more cost-effective route to the emergency ward.

While people obviously should err on the side of caution when it comes to emergency situations, the researchers say lessening the reliance on ambulances could have a number of benefits. It can reduce the cost for users and insurance companies and therefore lessen the cost of medical care overall, but also reduce wait times for people that really do need ambulances. They even suggest insurance companies could encourage patients to take Ubers where appropriate with gift vouchers, or educate them about other transport options.

"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," the team writes.

A paper describing the research is available online here.