Earlier this month in Las Vegas, thousands poured into the World of Concrete convention for a bricklaying competition, stucco demonstration and two-hour course on industrial flooring. At least 30 visitors fell sick with minor illnesses: colds, rashes and sinus infections.
An employee from a Tampa-based telehealth company examined the patients on site.
“In 15 seconds, these people were virtually greeted by a certified nursing assistant,” OnMed CEO and co-founder Austin White said.
The OnMed automated healthcare station in Vegas comes equipped with a 55-inch screen that connects patients to professionals with the touch of a finger. There, they chat about symptoms and check vitals such as temperature, blood pressure and oxygen levels in less than 20 minutes. Sometimes, the practitioner prescribes medication.
Nearly 70 common over-the-counter drugs are available at the station itself.
OnMed “fills that gap between traditional telehealth and in-person service,” White said. “You can get face time with a doctor without ever leaving the building.”
Three additional OnMed locations operate in other parts of the country.
Interest in teleheath skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and new ventures in virtual medicine are now capitalizing on the continued focus on wellness as the country escapes the throes of the crisis. Mobile vaccine passports and symptom trackers also have been deployed.
White co-founded OnMed before the pandemic, in 2014. But even after COVID-19, telemedicine is a growing industry with its own limitations, said Dr. Samantha Paige, a research associate who specializes in health communication and technology.
She completed her pre- and postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Florida.
“With immediate care venues like this, you don’t have that relationship with your primary care provider that people have built for years,” Paige said. “There is also a consideration on how the patient-provider relationship may change, or whether or not that has impact on health outcomes in the long run.”
“Of course, the convenience of it is the draw.”
OnMed could have applications in the post-pandemic world as business gatherings, conferences and conventions return this summer. White hopes so, anyway.
Between June and August, twelve conventions for 45,000 total attendees are scheduled in Tampa, according to data from Visit Tampa Bay and its CEO Santiago Corrada. And tourism is booming, with high hotel occupancy rates even with the approach of summer, normally the slow season in Florida.
But Corrada doubts there is sustainable demand for telehealth solutions at conventions with the pandemic slowing down. “It’s more of a personal decision now on how careful you want to be with masking and vaccines and social distancing,” he said.
White disagrees. He believes that in the long term, OnMed is suited for events and crowded places, like airports and tourist venues, that often see travelers.
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In fact, the Las Vegas Convention Center started searching for a telehealth provider before COVID-19 “was on anybody’s radar,” Brian Yost of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority said.
“We just felt it was the right thing to do as we look for ways to enhance the guest experience,” he added. “We felt [like] providing an opportunity for guests who are just not feeling right when they get here.”
If demand subsides for events, White said OnMed can fall back on its original mission: to increase healthcare accessibility.
The business aims to service patients at colleges, governments and rural areas more easily. Its 38 OnMed employees, White said, work out of Tampa while providing care to places where erecting a traditional doctor’s office may not be financially viable.
“Healthcare systems won’t even look at an area unless there’s at least 50,000 person population, because the math doesn’t work for them,” he said. An OnMed station can function profitably with just eight to 10 patients daily, he said.
Tampa General Hospital housed the first OnMed station beginning in late 2019 to let staff members conduct virtual consultations with other physicians.
Regardless of location, White said people will always opt for convenience. “The general population would much rather go into a station and be served that way than wait for an appointment for two weeks — or enter a room with other sick people,” he added.
OnMed can be structured based on a membership or per use model to turn a profit. White declined to discuss the cost of manufacturing and maintenance.
By the end of 2021, the company plans to triple the number of functioning stations to 12, with its employees still offering health care guidance from hundreds of miles away.