In every school district, when a teacher or other employee makes a trip to the doctor during the school day, it means lost productivity and added expense.

In Brooklyn Center, officials have decided to bring the doctor to school instead.

They hope that making care close and convenient will boost preventive efforts and drive down rising health costs.

The district has turned to a startup Twin Cities company, NeoPath Health, which combines high-tech tools and small-town medicine in a mini-clinic to be staffed eight hours a week by a family practitioner.

The program is designed to fit the budgets of small-scale employers, said NeoPath President Joe McErlane Jr.

Starting Thursday, the clinic physician, Dr. Heidi Gunn, will be available to diagnose and monitor chronic illnesses, treat injuries and dispense advice and generic medications, at no cost to employees or, at the outset, to the district. On days when the doctor isn't in, there's a kiosk where staffers can check their weight, blood pressure, pulse and blood oxygen levels, and communicate with Gunn by instant message, e-mail or webcam.

"The bottom line is the costs of insurance are way out of line," said Brooklyn Center Schools Superintendent Keith Lester. "If we catch a few potentially bad diseases, keep people from getting sicker and don't charge insurance for doctor calls and emergency calls, we should see savings in a lot of different ways."

Workplace clinics were common in past decades and are a perk at some large companies, including locals Best Buy and General Mills. One thing that's different here is that the district has only 240 teachers, support staffers and others in two school buildings.

The clinic, which operates separately from the district's insurance program, has two underlying premises. The first is that making it cheap and convenient will give staff members more motivation to monitor their own health, which the district hopes will reduce chronic and traumatic disease and boost morale. Second, the district hopes to reduce premiums in the future by cutting the amount that employees bill to their insurance.

"Our model is we strive to keep you healthy, because if we keep you healthy, the employer doesn't have to pay to treat you when you're sick," said NeoPath's McErlane.

Henry Van Dellen, practice leader at Bloomington-based Aon Consulting, said many clients are exploring similar approaches to health care.

"You provide convenience and reduce downtime for people having to leave work to go to the doctor, and catch conditions earlier and hopefully forestall those conditions from becoming worse from having a clinical professional on-site," he said. "Catch one pre-diabetic or one person with high blood pressure on the verge of a heart attack, and you've paid for the program."

Two-month free trial

For the 2009-10 enrollment year, the district is paying about $200,000 in monthly health insurance premiums. That figure has risen only slightly in recent years, but district officials are hoping to bring costs down for everyone.

They're getting a two-month, no-cost, no-obligation trial from NeoPath. Then there's another five-month period after which the district can walk away, at no cost, or agree to a fixed contract at $9,200 a month. The district is likely to pay about $500 more a month for medications and supplies.

The district hopes that health care savings will pay for the clinic.

McErlane, who said he's in talks with other employers, noted that costs will vary widely, depending on several factors. Future clients, for example, might choose to staff a clinic with a nurse practitioner or other medical professional at lower cost.

The district also got a deal by being NeoPath's first clients, he said.

At an open house last week, teachers, paraprofessionals, administrators and others checked out the new examination room, wedged into a former supply closet for the time being. They peered into the webcam and listened to McErlane's heartbeat from a remote computer that will be set up in Gunn's office and at her home. And they asked questions. Sandy Schultz, the district's cook manager, asked about chiropractors and acupuncture for a sore back and neck. English Language Learning teacher Shanda Hannan was interested in help with tendinitis in her elbow. Assistant Principal Jean Sorenson noted that the school has several pregnant staffers.

For her part, school doctor Gunn said she looks forward to becoming part of the school community, after 12 years of family practice in Little Falls.

"In a small town, patients who came in were my patients," she said. "I'd see them at the store; I'd see them at school. I am their doctor. If I wasn't there, they didn't appreciate that. I fully intend to have that kind of relationship here."

McErlane got his start in health care in large group sales for UnitedHealthcare. Later, while studying the NeoPath concept, he heard the story of a scrap metal worker in Oklahoma who bragged that he hadn't visited a doctor in 15 years.

A co-worker shamed the man into the company clinic for a bad cough. While there, he asked the doctor to check something else, a growth on his leg. It proved cancerous. The visit saved the reluctant patient's leg and maybe his life, not to mention a potential fortune in treatment costs.

"It's the 'Oh, by the ways,' that make this thing work," McErlane said.

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409