For full-time workers, trying to squeeze in medical appointments between work and home duties can sometimes be more vexing than the ailment itself. Then there are the crowded waiting rooms and overstretched doctors that make most health care visits far from ideal.
This perpetual dissatisfaction with medical care, and the ongoing battle with rising costs, is pushing a new trend: employers offering their own on-site medical clinics.
The concept has been around for a while–one company I spoke with has offered on-site clinics since the 1980s–but this solution is now gaining particular traction with local governments and school districts. That’s because many of these organizations self-fund their health care costs, so any savings directly impact their bottom line.
The premise is that it’s a win-win for both employers and employees: The former get lower costs, while the workers get better care because the clinic is less crowded, more available, and customized to their industry.
Usually an employer contracts with a company like Medcor, Healthstat, or miCare to set up and run a full-blown health clinic that’s exclusively for the employees and, in many cases, their eligible dependents.
Medcor has been in the business since 1984 and operates 177 clinics, with clients as diverse as Warner Brothers Studios, HBO, Target, and large mining operations. Curtis Smith, Medcor’s executive vice president, says while the lower cost is the primary motivator for companies, employees benefit from doctors who have more time to visit patients.
“The unrushed interaction helps both sides to do a better job,” Smith says. “A patient may come in for sore throat, but they actually may have hypertension, and it can be caught because you came in and the doctor got to spend more time with you. These clinical engagements are more effective and in-depth in making diagnoses.”
Crockett Dale is the CEO of Healthstat, which operates over 300 clinics across 32 states. He says that employee wellness plans, which have been tried by companies for many years, don’t have the same effect as on-site clinics because employees are understandably more willing to listen to doctors and nurses instead of their bosses when it comes to health advice.
Employees usually have a lot of options for making an appointment at a dedicated health clinic. They can use an online portal or make a call to be seen. Depending upon the location of the clinic, it can be a quicker turnaround than driving to a typical doctor’s office.
Unifi Manufacturing in North Carolina is one such business that offers on-site health clinics and gyms.
Helen Rosier, an IT support analyst at Unifi, said the clinic and gym combined makes it easier to target specific fitness goals. “Personally, it has helped me to stay focused on my fitness goals, and I believe it has also encouraged many other employees to do the same.”
Bobby Witt, a winding and inspecting instructor who has diabetes, said the conveniently located clinics have helped him preemptively improve his health, instead of just addressing problems after he gets sick. “After meeting with the nutritionist, he helped me understand the foods I can eat and the proportions. This has helped me manage my diabetes much better.”
The rising interest in offering on-site health clinics isn’t, of course, completely altruistic on the part of employers. The main motivator is lowering costs. Organizations are able to do this by paying a specific amount to the on-site health clinic provider for services.
Once the cost is agreed upon, the clinic is not under the same type of pressure to increase its share of patients or streamline costs like in other segments of the health care industry. The employer and clinic provider agree upon the cost upfront.
Rick Lubkeman, the business development manager for MiCare, says the model contrasts sharply with what he saw working in the medical field, where costs were always a concern. “I was a paramedic for 16 years. I saw the best and the worst of medical services. When I think of the amount of time that took us away from the patient for billing, it’s become ridiculous.”
Lubkeman uses an on-site clinic himself, and says it is more convenient to take a child in for an appointment because the disruption to the workday is minimized. Bosses like the model, he says, because when an employee goes to the health clinic, it is generally far less of a productivity drain than a traditional doctor’s office visit.
The biggest concern about on-site clinics is medical privacy in the workplace. The company representatives I spoke with emphasized that the employer does not have any access to employee medical records. All sensitive information is handled by the clinic, just as it would by any doctor’s office or other medical facility.
However, that doesn’t mean employees won’t run into their coworkers in the waiting rooms. To mitigate potential discomfort, Healthstat CEO Crockett Dale says the clinics must take several steps to make sure they account for each company’s culture. Don’t put the clinic near HR, for example, and provide enough waiting-room space so that employees are not bunched together, he says.
Medcor’s Curtis Smith says that, for both workers and organizations, a major benefit of these clinics is better medical treatment that helps prevent patients from developing more serious illnesses: “The savings come from identifying risks and behaviors that can be managed. Employers know wellness is the right thing to do.”
Derek Walter is a freelance writer in Northern California. He is the author of Learning MIT App Inventor: A Hands-on Guide to Building Your Own Android Apps.