Checking in: COVID-19 sparks demand for employee health apps

An automotive plant worker wears the armband device that connects her with her MakuSmart employee safety platform from MakuSafe, based in West Des Moines, which has been adapted for employee contact tracking use in the COVID-19 pandemic. PHOTO MAKUSMART

By Dave DeWitte

Jeff Szymanski is one of more than 50 employees at Involta in Cedar Rapids who faithfully takes a phone call twice a week, even though he knows that Eleanor, the voice at the other end, is a machine.

He knows the call will last a few minutes and he’ll have to give it his full attention, as Eleanor asks him whether he’s experiencing any symptoms linked to COVID-19, and if he’s had any contact with anyone who may have had COVID-19 or its symptoms, and a mind-teaser or two to determine if he’s mentally sharp.

Although he thinks carefully before answering, Mr. Szymanski also knows that Eleanor isn’t just listening for the literal meaning of his responses to evaluate his state of health. “She” is listening for changes in how he speaks, such as a slower cadence to his voice, that might signal he is isn’t fully alert or clear in his thinking.

It’s a new voice-based platform called MyEleanor from the startup MyndYou, and one of the multitude of new software-based apps and systems hitting the market for monitoring employee health amid the pandemic.

“It’s interesting, because we know she indeed is a bot and not real, but we joke when we’re talking [among ourselves], ‘what did you and Eleanor talk about today?’” said Mr. Szymanski, executive vice president of business development for Involta.

One of the key drivers of demand for such apps is a growing realization that COVID-19 may be a drawn-out affair, with experts expecting the coronavirus to wax and wane over an extended period of time before it’s brought under control by a combination of herd immunity and vaccinations.

“There is a flood of products that are entering this market,” said Loni Jacobsen, director of marketing at Marco, a regional supplier of office technology, in an email.

The company is “taking a cautious approach to evaluating these technologies,” she added, noting that Marco plans to offer solutions only after it has more information about COVID-19 diagnosis and issues surrounding its transmission.

Involta, meanwhile, is on the leading edge of what could become a trend toward automated employee health monitoring. Mr. Szymanski said the provider of data hosting and cloud-based information services has about 250 employees, and believes it has an added obligation to monitor employee health because it provides essential IT services for large health care providers, which at times send staff members to visit its data centers.

MyndYou’s solution was the first choice for Involta, which had already become interested in the Israel-based startup’s voice analysis technology for its original use in the early detection of mental decline as individuals age. Involta’s leaders shared it with the 15-member Involta Healthcare Advisory panel, a group representing clients in the health care industry that meets regularly to share best practices and insights. As the pandemic spread this spring, some members of the panel wanted to know if MyndView’s technology could help detect COVID-19.

MyndYou, which has been on the market for about a year, was already picking up on the opportunity, according to CEO Ruth Poliakine Baruchi, who founded the company with her husband, a data scientist.

“We are using the brain as a super-sensor for health changes and the voice is an output of the brain,” Ms. Baruchi said.

The startup has a proprietary algorithm that tracks what the company calls cognitive complexity. It claims the algorithm can use voice analysis to detect the subtle changes in the brain’s ability to process information over time, and pairs it with automated technology for engaging with patients or clients. That technology uses artificial intelligence to adjust the content of future calls based on past responses.

MyndYou is not making any specific claims of accuracy in diagnosing COVID-19, but rather provides general insights into health and wellness, Ms. Baruchi explained. If MyEleanor finds a likelihood that the individual’s health is declining, the system sends them a text or voice call recommending they call a physician.

A new crop of providers

The emerging field of software or AI-based health monitoring solutions is broad, and most are adaptations or remarketing of existing apps for COVID-19.

MãkuSafe, based in West Des Moines, is marketing its MãkuSmart platform for tracking employee work conditions as a solution for employers looking to trace contacts between employees that could lead to COVID-19 transmission, and to track the density of employees in the workplace for proper social distancing.

The platform was originally developed to provide ESH (environment, safety and health) managers with actionable information to protect the safety of workers. Employees use a personal identifier to log in on a kiosk that resembles a time clock, where they are issued an armband-mounted electronic device they wear during their shift.

The MãkuSmart device collects information on their movements and location, and a continuous stream of environmental data such as temperature and humidity that is displayed on a smartphone or computer. The sensor is also equipped with a microphone that the wearer can use to quickly record and send messages about immediate safety issues that should be addressed.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread, “it was almost a test to see, have you created a platform flexible enough to meet new developments in the workplace?” said MãkuSafe CEO Gabe Glynn, a Cedar Rapids native. It turned out that relatively few adaptations were needed for COVID-19 applications – primarily dashboard tools that allow the user to view worker density and easily trace worker contacts.

“If one of your workers named Tom gets sick, we can go look at Tom’s MãkuSmart   profile and see who he’s spent time over the last three days, five days or whatever number of days you specify,” Mr. Glynn said. “Who has Tom spent the most time with? Who could have possibly been exposed to the disease?”

MãkuSmart was expecting the greatest demand for its system to come from the manufacturing and logistics industries, but it has instead seen a surprising rise in interest from the construction and mining sectors. The company has several commitments for installation of its platform in 2020, and conversations with other prospective customers have been accelerated by the dangers of the pandemic. One prospect who was only interested in a small-scale trial suddenly was asking how quickly the company could supply 6,000 of the wearable devices with their supporting kiosks.

While automated health monitoring technology is on its way to the United States – and already familiar to many Americans from large factory scenes in China, where workers step through touchless thermometers that automatically scan their body temperature – most of the products currently being marketed are less intrusive, and based on self-monitoring.

They include SafetyTek, a free web-based self-assessment tool from a company of the same name that asks the user if they’ve experienced symptoms such as difficulty breathing, chest pain or loss of consciousness, and asks about their travel and interaction patterns in recent weeks. It then aggregates the data for the workforce, and tells the employer how many are experiencing symptoms or likely to be infected.

A product called COVID19Tracker from Kokomo 24/7 uses AI to determine the probability that reported cases warrant intervention by management or public health authorities. It uses a scoring system designed to pinpoint at-risk employees more accurately and screen out false positives.

Net Health, which develops healthcare apps, offers a COVID-19 app for exposure tracking among medical providers. The app monitors employee responses to screening questions, checks if individuals are meeting employer requirements such as testing and quarantining, and can perform exposure tracking.

Earning employee trust

One of the critical factors for success will be convincing employees to participate and answer truthfully. Part of that involves protecting worker privacy.

Involta employees who use MyEleanor are explicitly guaranteed that the information they provide will not be shared, and that any health alerts that come as a result will go to them personally, not the company.

MãkuSmart users don’t have concerns about medical privacy because the system does not record or monitor any personal health data. Rather, Mr. Glynn said, it employs machine learning technology to read through and assess environmental data, and identify “high-impact trends” that raise safety concerns for leadership.

The developers of some of the technologies believe their COVID-19 applications may provide a bridge to post-pandemic uses for other health monitoring needs.

MyndYou, for instance, expects MyEleanor to find uses like keeping tabs on the health of aging parents after employees return to work and have less time to check on them, and checking the health of patients after they leave the hospital.

Involta took a gradual approach to introducing MyEleanor, first offering it to executive staff and a core group of 40 individuals who were still working regularly in the company’s data centers. Thirty more individuals signed on to use MyEleanor, and in mid-May, after Involta offered a company-wide presentation to its workforce of 250, another 20 signed up.

Mr. Szymanski expects 100 individuals to be using MyEleanor in the near future, as more states in which Involta has locations relax shelter-in-place restrictions and they return to the office. The company “still has some work to do,” he adds, in terms of establishing procedures for following up with employees who report an alert from MyEleanor.

Although MyndYou’s data services are cloud-based, Mr. Szymanski said they don’t use Involta’s cloud services. If the company becomes a big success, however, he said he will be knocking on its door to get its cloud business.   CBJ