The company doctor used to be commonplace in many American workplaces, but one Twin Cities researcher believes the time has come instead for businesses to provide the company chiropractor, or the company massage therapist.

Northwestern Health Sciences University in Bloomington has tested its WorkSiteRight model of placing alternative practitioners in businesses and reported $8 in savings for every $1 that employers spent on them.

The savings come from preventing injuries or treating them before they require surgery, said Chad Henriksen, who directs WorkSiteRight and studied its impact on businesses in Minnesota, Indiana and Virginia. Workers had free access to the clinics.

"More convenient access to health care is really driving a lot of the savings," he said. "It's the idea of early intervention and prevention-type engagement with employees."

Employers might consider on-site clinics again because they are frustrated with rising medical costs and ready for "transformational" change in the delivery of health care, said Carolyn Pare, chief executive of the Minnesota Health Action Group, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of employers for health care reforms.

A notable example came this week, when Berkshire Hathaway, Amazon, and JPMorgan announced a partnership to reduce medical costs.

Employers used to hire their own medical providers; Pare recalled the presence of in-house nurse practitioners years ago when she worked for TJ Maxx and Dayton-Hudson.

They fell out of favor over time, as employers looked to trim expenses and workers demanded access to broad doctor networks. But Pare said the idea has been making a comeback, with mixed results.

"Put 'em in, take 'em out. I've seen [these clinics] come and go," Pare said. "Employers have been frustrated for a long time. They do all sorts of interventions and it doesn't seem to do anything to moderate the cost of health care."

Some on-site clinics haven't lowered company health costs, she added, but they have gained renewed popularity with workers who have seen their health benefits getting more expensive and less valuable.

Henriksen said WorkSiteRight would have been a tough sell 20 years ago, when alternative providers weren't always viewed as legitimate practitioners. But his research has found that they can help companies meet diverse goals.

City leaders in Martinsville, Va., were concerned about opioid medication use by municipal workers for pains and injuries and found that an on-site clinic reduced painkiller usage, Henriksen said. In Montevideo, Minn., the Friendship Homes plant is seeing a reduction in workers' compensation claims through its clinic.

"The timing is right," Henriksen said. "That's why we think its important to get the message out now, and to have legitimate numbers behind it."

Henriksen acknowledged a potential conflict, in that his research promotes an expanded market for Northwestern's health sciences graduates. But that doesn't diminish the results, he said, which were based on health insurance claims and were verified by third-party reviewers and the participating employers.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744