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.
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.
The idea, he said, was to combine a few simple automated tests and questionnaires to help identify people at risk for common chronic health problems. And then provide them with instant information on what they can do about it. A poor eye test, for example, could signal an underlying disease, such as glaucoma, that needs medical attention.
About a quarter of those who have used the kiosks say they’ve never had a vision test before, Foster said.
“That in and of itself tells me there’s a need out there.”
Donna Swierczyk, of St. Louis Park, decided to try out the kiosk on a whim last week while shopping at Sam’s Club. “I was just interested in the blood pressure,” she said, admitting that she didn’t notice all of the other options on the screen. Nor did she notice the ads.
“I’ll look at the board a little closer next time,” she said with a laugh. She called it a “good idea,” especially for people who can’t afford, or simply avoid, going to doctors.
“The more you learn about your own body, I think, the better,” she said. Next time, she added, she’ll try it again “and have my husband even try it out.”
But Tom Charland of Merchant Medicine, a consulting firm in Shoreview, doubts whether the shoppers will be motivated to use the machines for preventive care.
“It’s not like they have this burning need to get it done,” said Charland. “There will be a small percentage of the population who will use these devices, but I don’t think they will actually pay for the cost of the device.”
The company makes most of its money from ads, Foster said, and the average customer spends about 4 minutes on the kiosk. But nearly half come back. If they can create a personal account, they can retrieve their data anytime, according to Foster. He’s confident that interest is only going to grow. Already, SoloHealth plans to add more modules: one on smoking cessation and one on pain control, with the content provided by a pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, Foster said.
Conflict of interest?
Some scholars and physicians argue that the ads and drug-company involvement will skew the health message.
“Given the utter mess that is pain control and abuse in [the] USA, the last group to design content ought to be a pharma company,” said Art Caplan, a medical ethicist at New York University. Caplan is skeptical of sites “promoting voodoo health, including fish oil.”
“If the only way to pay for this is to sell nostrums and unproven remedies, then that is a problem,” said Caplan, a former professor at the University of Minnesota.
Thorson, a family physician, said he also worried that getting a test result from a kiosk may unduly alarm patients, if there’s no medical professional to help interpret it.
“If we simply tell a person your blood pressure is high, you’re overweight, your vision is off, [and] we don’t do anything to help them fix that, we haven’t changed anything,” he said. “It creates anxiety without helping them.”
Foster, of SoloHealth, shrugs off the criticism. He said a medical board reviews the health information to verify the accuracy. And the ads, he said, allow them to keep the service for free.
“Some people could say, ‘I don’t want to see those ads,’ ” he said. “Fine. Go talk to a doctor and spend $80. Or go to your website. This is a free service. We had to get paid somehow.”
In the meantime, he said, it’s proven popular with both the retail stores and their customers. And he believes it will help people get the care they need.
“People that are more educated,” he said, “are better patients.”