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Do screening kiosks benefit patients or retailers?

The self-service stations promote patient engagement, but some medical experts express concerns about including product advertisements in the process.

By — Posted April 8, 2013

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Continuing the trend of giant retailers moving into the health care market, self-service computerized kiosks that check shoppers’ vital signs and direct them to local doctors are becoming more prevalent.

Georgia-based SoloHealth, an owner and operator of these interactive kiosks, has about 2,500 of the machines in Walmart and Sam’s Club stores. The company is rolling out about 700 more at Safeway, and it expects to have about 4,000 machines at various locations by 2014.

With a shortage of physicians and more Americans expected to access health care through the Affordable Care Act, some large retailers with pharmacies have been rolling out their own health care business models such as kiosks and in-store clinics.

The kiosks, which are free to shoppers, are more advanced than blood pressure cuffs commonly seen in pharmacies. The computerized kiosks measure body mass index, weight, blood pressure and vision through touch screens.

Shoppers type in medical and demographic information. In turn, they are given advice about their health, especially if they are at risk of disease. At the same time, they are shown ads of products that might help them based on their answers.

A list of local physicians is provided if shoppers want to further pursue their results. Physicians can pay to place their names on the top of the lists. SoloHealth declined to say how much doctors are charged.

“We aren’t trying to replace doctors,” said Amy Sorrells, SoloHealth’s director of communications. “We are creating more awareness. It’s information for people to act upon.”

The kiosks can be a great tool for patients to become more engaged in health care, and they may promote patients to see their doctors more regularly, said Jeffrey J. Cain, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. He said studies show that the healthiest patients have ongoing relationships with doctors, leading to lower overall costs.

But it’s questionable whether shoppers should be subjected to advertised products while taking tests at kiosks, Dr. Cain said. “There are elements of this that are wonderful, but there are others that are yet to be fully understood,” he said.

The growth of retail clinics

Some retailers have moved into health care with in-store clinics.

Between Dec. 1, 2011, and Dec. 1, 2012, there was a net gain of 67 in-store clinics, bringing the nationwide total to about 1,420 such clinics, according to Merchant Medicine, a retail clinic consultancy and market research company based in Shoreview, Minn.

Growth was driven by CVS-owned Minute Clinic, which opened 68 clinics between Dec. 1, 2011, and Dec. 1, 2012. At Walmart, the number of clinics dropped to 125 from 142 during the same period. Unlike CVS, Walmart doesn’t operate the clinics but leases space to local hospitals, which run the clinics.

Many retailers see implementation of these clinics and computerized health kiosks as a way to make money in a growing field that’s trying to cut costs, said Tom Charland, CEO of Merchant Medicine.

For example, the kiosks can be used as advertising tools. The emails that shoppers provide while taking the health screenings can be used by advertisers to send additional ads, Charland said.

So far, the kiosks appear to be popular with some shoppers, as about 85,000 people use them every day, Sorrells said. The average shopper spends 4½ minutes on each machine.

The first kiosk rolled out in 2007 as a simple vision screening test. SoloHealth plans to add new health modules this year, including a pain management and smoking-cessation module, Sorrells said.

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