Self-service kiosk for health care comes to Minnesota megastores

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 6, 2013 - 7:20 AM

Do-it-yourself kiosks in stores may help fill a need for preventive care.

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Carter Anderson, optical manager at Sam’s Club in St. Louis Park, did an eye test on the SoloHealth Station. The kiosk offers several do-it-yourself tests.

Photo: MARLIN Levison • Star Tribune,

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The blue-and-white kiosk at Sam’s Club in St. Louis Park looks enough like an arcade game that kids are always stopping to play with it.

So Satish Chatrathi, 31, waited patiently for a little girl to finish up before sitting down behind the interactive touch screen last week. Chatrathi, of Hopkins, just wanted to check his blood pressure and body mass index.

But at the SoloHealth Station, that’s just the beginning.

The device, tucked behind stacks of razor blades and diapers near the pharmacy, can test your vision, assess your risk of heart disease, and offer some friendly advice on diet and exercise habits, among a growing list of health topics.

The old do-it-yourself blood pressure machines, which once populated drug and grocery stores, are quickly being replaced by a new generation of devices that are transforming the concept of self-service health care.

As customers answer on-screen questions — about their age, gender, allergies and potential symptoms (tingling in your fingers? depression?) — the machine tailors its recommendations, and advertisements, to fit their profiles.

It will even provide a list of local doctors and offer to help schedule an appointment, if they learn something worrisome.

And it’s free, if you don’t mind sitting through a stream of ads for fish oil, heartburn pills and other health products.

Since last fall, some 3,000 SoloHealth kiosks have spread across the country, including nearly 50 in Minnesota, in megastores like Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club, according to the Georgia-based company.

Health care experts, meanwhile, are trying to figure out if the kiosks are a gimmick, a breakthrough — or both.

“Handled the right way, they could be super beneficial,”said Dominique Tobbell, a medical historian at the University of Minnesota. “They’re addressing a problem within the health care field, which is the need to get more patients engaged in preventive health care.”

Dr. David Thorson, chairman of the Minnesota Medical Association, also sees potential. “There are a lot of people that we don’t reach,” he said, and if kiosks help them to pay attention to their health, “that’s a wonderful thing.”

The question, Thorson said, is how reliable the medical information is and what people do with it. “If nobody ever follows up, then it’s simply an advertising gimmick.”

Bart Foster, founder and CEO of SoloHealth, said he’s not trying to compete with doctors.

“We want to empower people to take care of themselves,” he said. And technology, he said, is making that easier than ever before.

Democratizing medicine

Foster, 38, compares his kiosks to the ATMs that revolutionized banking. Since then, he said, there’s been a “fundamental shift” toward self-service kiosks in many industries, from airports to grocery stores. In health care, he says, the movement is “in its infancy.”

Foster, a one-time drug company executive, said he got a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop the SoloHealth kiosk, which made its debut last October.

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