UnitedHealth, Microsoft Work Create App Screening Returning Workers For COVID-19

UnitedHealth Group is working with Microsoft on a set of tools helping employers bring employees back to work safely in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The two have launched ProtectWell, a return-to-work program that helps employees figure out whether they can go back to the job safely. The ProtectWell protocol has incorporated CDC guidelines and current clinical research on limiting the spread of COVID-19.

The ProtectWell app is built on Microsoft Azure, AI and analytics tools, along with the Microsoft Healthcare Bot service. The Healthcare Bot service, which is also based on Azure, is a public cloud service that helps organizations build and deploy AI-powered bots providing personalized access to health information. The effort also relies on clinical and data analytics capabilities from UHG.

The ProtectWell smartphone app includes a screening tool (an AI-powered bot) which asks users a series of questions designed to detect COVID-19 symptoms or exposure. If employee responses suggest that they are infected are at risk of infection, employers can direct their employees to testing options.

This process allows closed-loop ordering reporting of test results, the results going straight back to the employer rather than being lost in the broader healthcare system.

This project is an interesting development. In retrospect it makes sense that Microsoft would want to get into the space and pitch such solutions to its enterprise clients. This is an acknowledgment that employers have an opportunity to be proactive in how they manage COVID-19-related care. While they always have some impact on employee wellness through the health insurance benefit choices they make, this stratagem offers the more direct input in providing this care and keeping uninfected employees well.

It should be noted, however, that some employees might find this to be a somewhat intrusive process. (I know I would.) Pitch the effort as an attempt to protect workers though they might, the introduction of new technology to look into employees’ medical status might be an overreach.

After all, while providers are blocked by HIPAA from sharing medical information with outside organizations, employers aren’t constrained by HIPAA rules since most are not covered entities. When you consider that it may be possible for people to get reinfected with the virus, and that it’s not clear how long people can be carriers, a positive COVID-19 test could become a stigmatized status comparable to receiving a positive HIV test.

When you throw in the involvement of data analytics from UHG, you have the possibility of a privacy train wreck. In particular, while UHG is constrained by HIPAA privacy rules, it may be possible to re-identify employees from data that it shares.

In any event, UHG and Microsoft reported that they are rolling out ProtectWell technology to their employees. Let’s see what happens among those workers as the deployment progresses.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.