The City of Boston this week is rolling out a new program that's whimsically known as "Prescribe-a-Bike." Part medicine, part welfare, the initiative allows doctors at Boston Medical Center to write "prescriptions" for low-income patients to get yearlong memberships to Hubway, the city's bike-share system, for only $5.
These are not prescriptions in the legal sense. Rather, they are a kind of physician's letter, says Alan Meyers, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center. "A clinician working with a patient or family could generate this form and then a hospital parking office which is right on the campus could enroll the person in the program," he explains. The hope is that signing low-income patients up for bike shares will help combat obesity, which disproportionately affects that community.
The $5 prescription rate Boston Medical Center is offering is significantly cheaper than Hubway's $85 annual membership fee, and even beats the $6 24-hour-access pass often purchased by visitors. Boston has also waived credit qualifications for low-income patients, which have proved too much of a roadblock in the past, and is putting its own funds up to insure against potential losses or damages.
Perhaps the oddest thing about Prescribe-a-Bike is that it starts at the doctor's office, yet its aims and functions are not strictly medical. Any low-income patient is eligible to receive a $5 membership from a physician, so long as the person doesn't have a medical condition like a seizure disorder that could make biking dangerous. The program's costs are being borne by the city, rather than any health insurance provider.
Meyers admits the setup is odd but says it's not the first of its kind. Primary care providers at Boston Medical Center already write similar "prescriptions" that give low-income patients with nutritional needs access to the hospital's own food pantry. The pantry itself is staffed by hospital personnel but funded by private charities.