Do your workers Google symptoms? This app wants to change that

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WASHINGTON — Your headache is definitely brain cancer; you have about a week to live — or so says the Google search you ran on headaches while trying to decide whether to see the doctor. But one telemedicine app wants to connect employees with real doctors for their symptom searches before they spend a fortune at the hospital.

HealthTap is an app where users can pose health questions to more than 100,000 doctors in the U.S., and an additional 40,000 overseas. The app combines physician responses and artificial intelligence to help explain symptoms, and determine whether they should visit a primary care doctor, urgent care or the hospital.

Telemedicine was projected to save U.S. employers $6 billion annually in healthcare spending by encouraging employees to use primary care, according to a 2014 Towers Watson study. Sean Mehra, chief strategy officer and co-founder at HealthTap, says technology can do more to help employees find the appropriate care method, and prevent costly hospital visits.

“People want health information; they go to Google 20 times more than they go to their doctor when they have a question,” Mehra said during a session of the World Health Care Congress on Monday.

Flex, a global electronic manufacturing company, added HealthTap to its benefits platform last year to help its U.S. employees make the most of their new health coverage; all health expenses are entirely covered by HSA accounts. The Fortune 500 company has 200,000 employees worldwide.

“We knew there would be challenges with that, so we wanted to offer a way for employees to not tap into their high-deductible health plan,” Sharawn Connors, vice president of total rewards and diversity and inclusion at Flex, said during the session. “This way, they can ask questions before they go to the doctor and spend those dollars.”

Mehra worked with Connors to develop an engagement strategy to encourage Flex’s employees to use HealthTap. In addition to personal stories, Connors said the most effective engagement tool has been employer-sponsored HSA contributions — employees get dollars added to their account every time they engage with the app.

“I definitely recommend using an incentive structure like that to encourage employees to use the platforms you provide,” Connors said.

Connors has also seen an increase in primary care visits among employees who don’t regularly visit the doctor since offering HealthTap, she said.

“We had someone who wasn’t comfortable asking her doctor questions, so she’d put off going,” Connors said. “Now she’s able to fire off questions to a bunch of doctors and get them answered without having to go in.”

Mehra added that the app doesn’t replace doctors, but it can help them make diagnoses more efficiently.

“[The app coupled] with the symptom interview, saves doctors time,” Mehra said. “When they’re making clinical decisions, they already have the list of reported symptoms and suggested ailments because the user filled them out through the app. When you put them together each doctor becomes a super-diagnostician.”

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