Healthcare, tech companies are vying for a piece of back-to-work market. Here are the new opportunities post-COVID-19

The demand for return-to-work technology and services solutions opens up opportunities for digital health partnerships in the employer market, experts say. Technology companies have developed software and gadgets ranging from contact tracing apps to wearables to thermal imaging cameras to help employers equip their offices for the COVID-19 era. (PongMoji/Getty images)

As employers, universities and public venues look to safely bring people back into buildings, it has opened up a massive market opportunity for digital health and health tech companies.

It’s a market that’s attracting major players such as CVS, IBM, Microsoft, UnitedHealth, and Fitbit as well as a long list of digital health companies. From pop-up health clinics to symptom tracking apps to diagnostic testing, companies are quickly pivoting to offer services and tools to support employers' return-to-work strategies.

The demand is high as employers and human resources departments grapple with the complexities of developing health and safety protocols while keeping up with the evolving guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  

CVS has had 80 organizations sign on to use its Return Ready workplace solution, including companies in essential services, higher education, manufacturing, media and entertainment, and travel, according to Sree Chaguturu, M.D., chief medical officer of CVS Caremark.

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"We are finding that they are requesting support on a range of questions related to testing, including, who should be tested, how, and where and how to compliantly communicate with employees and report test results to public health authorities," Chaguturu told Fierce Healthcare. "Employers also want to know what other supportive services – such as symptom checking, temperature checking, and contact tracing – make sense for an employee population."

To tap into this market, CVS’ Return Ready workplace solution leverages the retail giant’s large footprint of testing sites and lab partnerships. Users have access to on-site testing conducted by CVS or to tests at more than 4,000 drive-thru locations.

Making the right safety call

Faced with workplace safety issues due to the pandemic, human resources departments are now burdened with making medical judgments — and looking for help.

According to an Optum survey, nearly two-thirds (61%) of employers said that their health plan was a key partner in bringing employees back to the worksite, while 46% said they are working with specialty providers for occupational health. More than a third (38%) said they are partnering with population health services providers.

“We had a lot of questions from employees about when to isolate, when to quarantine, when to get tested and things of that nature,” Carmen Johnson, benefits and payroll manager at Bell's Brewery, a craft brewer based in Michigan, told Fierce Healthcare. “The benefits team here, which consists of myself and two other employees, we were triaging these issues and looking at the CDC website every day. But we are not experts on COVID.”

Employers are encountering a lot of point solutions, such as COVID-19 screening apps and symptom checkers, but these are often not integrated with other resources such as telehealth visits or testing services, she said.

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Bell’s Brewery, which has close to 500 employees, partnered with Eden Health in June to help develop its workplace safety protocols and return-to-work strategy.

Eden Health is a tech-enabled primary care and mental health provider that works directly with employers.

In response to the pandemic, the company developed tools to coordinate COVID-19 screening, monitoring, testing, and protocols on top of a core primary care and behavioral care benefit that can include in-person visits with a clinician or virtual visits through text or video, according to the company. Eden Health has conducted 100,000 employee screenings to date.

Another employer, Thedacare, a seven-hospital health system that serves northeast and central Wisconsin, deployed a return to work solution from digital health company b.well Connected Health.

The health system offers the digital solution to its more than 7,000 employees for daily self-screening for symptoms and exposure. The app then directs employees to care if needed, such as telehealth visits or directions to the closest COVID-19 testing site.

The app helps to reduce the burden on internal HR teams by providing an administrative dashboard to identify trends, said Mark Cockley, M.D., chief clinical officer of Thedacare

“As a health care provider, it is critical we safeguard our team members and our patients against COVID-19. This tool creates more efficiency for our team to manage health and wellness in real-time while protecting the safety and health of our communities,” he said.

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Ensuring data privacy

Technology companies have developed software and gadgets ranging from contact tracing apps to wearables to thermal imaging cameras to help employers equip their offices for the COVID-19 era.

But these technologies bring up privacy issues, especially as it relates to health data.

Tech giant IBM developed a “digital health pass” designed with privacy as a central consideration as it’s built on blockchain technology. The company’s return to work solution allows users to share their verified health pass without exposing any of the underlying data used to generate it, according to Eric Piscini, global vice president of blockchain at IBM Watson Health.

The solution enables users to share health data, such as a COVID-19 test result or online health survey, by scanning a QR code and adding their health data to their digital wallet. That generates a credential that can be viewed or removed at any time, Piscini said.

When an individual wants to attend a sporting event or board a plane that requires a health status check, their status can be generated from their credentials, he said.

At Bell’s Brewery Johnson said partnering with a healthcare company helps to better safeguard employees’ privacy as it relates to testing results and other health data.

“Eden Health is aware of the protocols around handling personal health information and they are able to keep that information confidential for employees, she said.

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Opportunities post-COVID

Once a COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available and accessible, the demand for back-to-work solutions will decline.

But this new market is opening up opportunities for digital health partnerships in the employer market, according to Rock Health, a venture capital firm that invests in digital health companies.

“Over time, these solutions can evolve into digital front doors to employee’s healthcare journeys. Employees could notify their employer when taking a sick day by logging into solutions that integrate with both HR platforms and virtual care offerings,” Sari Kaganoff, general manager of Rock Health Consulting, wrote in a report.

Thedacare’s Cockley anticipates that the b.Well Connected Health app the health system is currently using for COVID can be adapted for the flu season or other acute illnesses to help manage the workforce.

Matt McCambridge, co-founder and CEO of Eden Health, believes the pandemic is a transformational workforce safety moment, something akin to how the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks changed airport security.

Employers will be driven to be medically-forward to manage population health using new models of preventative care aligned with telehealth, he said.

“Employers are thinking about this as a long-term issue in terms of proactively supporting their workforce,” he said.