Wal-Mart Health Screening Stations Part Of ‘Self-Service Revolution’

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Wal-Mart ‘Treading A Fine Line’

SoloHealth’s founder and CEO Bart Foster saw larger possibilities for automated screening after he began providing Wal-Mart with self-service vision tests as a way to get shoppers from the product aisles to Wal-Mart’s optical shops.

In 2010, the firm got a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop new approaches to screening for people in underserved communities. It has also received more than $43 million in investments from computer maker Dell Corp., health insurer WellPoint and Coinstar, maker of the Red Box DVD rental boxes, he says.

Today, SoloHealth’s kiosks, which are not connected to a live physician, allow consumers not just to test their eyesight and learn if they are obese, but to get information on diet, vitamins and pain management.  A “find a doctor” function can direct users to nearby doctors, although the one in Sterling listed only “optical doctors” — and those appeared mainly to be Wal-Mart-affiliated.

Foster says SoloHealth has received lists of doctors from sponsors, including Wal-Mart, and also allows doctors to buy a listing. SoloHealth does not do any independent review of doctors’ credentials. About 20 to 30 doctors are typically offered.

Among its programs is one that advises those suffering symptoms of heartburn whether it may indeed be heartburn and which over-the-counter product might be useful, says Stephen Kendig, the firm’s chief commercial officer.

“We’re treading a fine line,” Foster says. “We don’t want to practice medicine, just educate people.”

But such programs raise a red flag for some consumer advocates who worry the “advice” might be an advertisement.

The SoloHealth station in Sterling, Va., for example, runs a video for Healthy Choice yogurt while the blood pressure device inflates.

Ads for Nature Made fish oil supplements or Healthy Choice frozen meals appear when consumers respond yes to a written question asking if they want more information about a healthy lifestyle. Others appear for allergy drug Zyrtec and heartburn medication Prilosec.

The ads, which can be targeted to particular consumers based on their answers, are SoloHealth’s revenue model. “Reach customers when they are aisles, not miles, away,” the firm’s message to advertisers on its website says.

Users who enter their email addresses — and about 18% do — will receive test results, along with information that might include “ask your doctor about this drug” this or “pick up some Advil on aisle four,” says Foster.  Despite those efforts, every one of the five people who used the kiosk in the space of about an hour, including Khader, said they did not notice the advertising.

Health Screening in Wal-Mart A Privacy Risk?

Consumers Union Senior Attorney Mark Savage says it’s a good thing to get people more engaged in their health, but he says the new technology carries potential risks.

“You have a situation where a patient is voluntarily disclosing information, which means there is no privacy protection, generally,” Savage says.  “They may not know if the information is being kept and might be used weeks or years after.”

Solohealth’s Kendig says the firm is not considered a covered entity under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, meaning it is not required to meet the law’s privacy standards.  If it shares personal health information with insurers or medical providers, then it would need to meet those standards.

All information, except the email addresses, is aggregated and shared with SoloHealth sponsors without personal identifiers, Foster says. Those who leave their email address can track their test results over time and may be sent more information, including newsletters targeted to specific health conditions.

Consumer Khader did not mention concerns about how his information might be stored and used in the future.

But he did have one suggestion. Turn the machines so the screen cannot be seen by other customers.

“I would like a little more privacy,” he says.

This story was produced by KHN in collaboration with USAToday
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