Workplace health clinics now focus on treating chronic diseases, but is privacy a concern?

As it becomes more commonplace to have in-office health clinics at big companies, concerns about what employers are doing with information about patients' health come front and center.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal explored how companies are now using workplace health centers as a means to prevent and treat chronic diseases, like diabetes or high cholesterol, in an effort to cut healthcare costs down the road. But is employee privacy protected?

Chronic disease costing productivity

According to a Towers Watson survey, the top seven chronic diseases are expected to cost companies a total of $4.2 trillion by 2023, both in productivity and healthcare expenses. So as more large U.S. employers turn to on-site medical clinics, healthcare providers are advising companies to add services that address chronic disease prevention and management, like regular blood glucose testing or nutritional counseling, to the list of services they offer employees.

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"This is where the action is as far as improving employees' health," Allan Khoury, a senior consultant at health-care consultancy Towers Watson, told the Wall Street Journal.

Confidentiality concerns

But your health information isn't really kept confidential, as third-party companies review health statistics to determine which employees are most at risk for problems – and then email or call these people with offers and incentives to get them to into the clinics.

Some worry that an employer's access to this type of personal data can muddy the work waters, leading to discrimination and unfair treatment.

"Anytime there's something paid for by the company, there's always the possibility that they will raid the data," using it to penalize or even fire unhealthy workers, said Deborah Peel, founder of nonprofit group Patient Privacy Rights.

Some companies already charge employees more for health services if they receive less-than-optimal test results, like a high blood pressure reading.

Potential benefits

Not just a win for companies looking to save money, on-site workplace health clinics can also reduce emergency room visits and inpatient hospital admissions, according to Hanesbrands Inc., a company that runs a clinic at its Winston-Salem, N.C., headquarters.

Over half of the company's diabetes patients are "engaged" with the clinic – which offers entirely free services – and have shown improved blood sugar readings, said Annamarie D'Souza, Hansebrands' vice president of compensation and benefits.

"You have to take away the obstacles, and copays are an obstacle," she said.

Source: Wall Street Journal

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