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Health IT

Self-Serve Healthcare Arrives

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Solohealth’s rapid expansion shows potential for healthcare kiosks in providing services from monitoring blood pressure to enrolling in insurance.

Self-service healthcare has come a long way from the days of sticking your finger in the blood pressure monitor next to the grocery checkout counter.

The latest healthcare kiosks can check your eyesight, help you quit smoking, even link you to a doctor for a video-based diagnosis.

While kiosks haven’t caught on as quickly in healthcare as in other industries — such as in banking and airlines — the shift toward patient-centered health is driving the development of innovative ways to engage consumers. Recent estimates put kiosk market penetration at anywhere between 10 and 20 percent of healthcare delivery.

“Self-service healthcare is really just in its infancy, but these other kiosk solutions have paved the way for consumer acceptance,” said Bart Foster, founder and chief executive of Solohealth, which makes interactive health and wellness kiosks.

Foster says a “self-service healthcare revolution” is underway, a transformation that will only be accelerated by new laws going into effect next year requiring everyone to get healthcare insurance. About 30 million uninsured Americans are poised to enter the insurance market, under Affordable Care Act mandates.

Whereas most Americans have traditionally enrolled in healthcare insurance through their employers, many of the newly insured will have to shop around for their plans. That presents both an opportunity and challenge for insurers used to going through business clients.

“Now, the health plans are forced to talk directly to consumers, but they’ve never done it before,” Foster told HealthBiz Decoded. “So they’re aggressively looking for avenues and platforms to connect with consumers directly.”

Enter the healthcare kiosk. One of the most common uses of the technology has been self-registration at hospitals, so the basic opportunities there for enrolling in insurance are clear.

But Foster said the impact of kiosks in the enrollment effort could be much greater. They enable insurers to “make introductions” with consumers at retail outlets and other high-traffic places, while also giving them the ability to use data to target customers.

This potential was reflected in a recent kiosk industry survey by Digital Screenmedia Association, which found 10 percent of respondents expect healthcare to be a major beneficiary of self-service technologies in the next five years. The increase from 7 percent in an earlier survey “may reflect the federal health care reform legislation that could add as many as 30 million citizens to the patient rolls,” the report said.

Solohealth will soon announce deals with a number of major health plans. “It has fundamentally changed our business and the way we look at this as a platform to engage consumers,” said Foster.

The healthcare kiosk industry ranges from more basic check-in functions, such as the MediKiosks sold by N. Harris Computer Corp., to the video doctor “visits” enabled by HealthSpot.

Solohealth falls somewhere in between, entering the market in 2007 with a self-service vision screening kiosk. With the help of a National Institutes of Health grant in 2010, the company developed a comprehensive consumer health and wellness platform that has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and complies with privacy rules under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. Along with checking your blood pressure and eye sight, the kiosks provides an overall health assessment and as well as a database of nearby doctors.

Initially targeting retail outlets, the company has placed the Solohealth Station in nearly 3,000 stores — including Walmart, Sam’s Club and Safeway. Foster expects to reach 4,000 stores this year, and possibly double that next year.

Retailers like the kiosks because they help drive healthcare-related sales and promote customer loyalty, he says, noting that more than half of Solohealth users are return visitors.

Aisle7, a Portland, Ore.-based provider of wellness-driven shopper marketing programs, conducted a study in which it deployed informational kiosks in only some of a major retailer’s stores. It found that stores where it had deployed informational kiosks had a nearly 2 percent increase in overall sales and a 16 percent greater likelihood of outperforming non-kiosk stores.

Solohealth is also starting to place kiosks on large employer campuses, a move attracting the attention of insurers. Other high-traffic locations under consideration include hospitals, large churches, gyms and libraries. Physician groups, such as the American Medical Association and American Academy of Family Physicians, have acknowledged the kiosks as a tool for engaging patients, but stress that they are no substitute for doctor-patient relationships.

The Solohealth Station uses adaptive logic, taking users along a specific line of questions based on their specific information– age, ethnicity, gender. Users can also take part in a survey at the end, providing valuable data for Solohealth and its clients.

“We definitely see data as a powerful tool, and the health plans do too,” said Foster. Not only can users track their own data, but retail or insurance clients can use the information to target consumers.

“Under the new healthcare mandate, you can’t decline people based on previous conditions or demographics or anything like that,” he said. “However, you can market directly to people that you want to.”

In the new age of patient empowerment, data has become actionable for them — but also for the companies providing the services.