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Saving Lives While Saving Money: On-site Health Screenings Create A New Approach to Preventive Medicine

After Norman Lipscomb had his company-sponsored physical this year, doctors gave him the dreaded news that no patient wants to hear: "You have cancer." And not just one malignancy, he soon learned. He got a double dose of bad medicine: prostate and lung cancer.

And yet, if Mr. Lipscomb's employer had not decided to sponsor more comprehensive on-site health screenings for employees, the cancers might still be spreading through his system, creating a much more difficult health problem for him down the line.

For the past 35 years, Mr. Lipscomb has worked at Georgia Power, an electric power company based in Atlanta that is a subsidiary of Southern Company, one of the largest producers of electricity in the United States. Mr. Lipscomb, a computer specialist, has had company-sponsored, regular physicals every four years, but this year's physical was different.

Georgia Power brought in doctors who have partnered with Med MatRx, a company founded three years ago to make physician house calls in the workplace.

A New Concept for a New Company

Bob Fritzky, president and CEO of Med MatRx, based in New York City, saw the need for a new approach to preventive medicine: comprehensive and easily available health screenings at the work site-in effect, corporate house calls. Physicians from Georgia Urology in Atlanta approached Mr. Fritzky about creating a company that helps satisfy the healthcare needs of employees, employers and physicians.

Under a standard healthcare plan that an employer might typically provide, an employee usually takes time for healthcare only when he or she feels sick. But if employees wait until they feel sick, the illness often costs more money for all involved: the employee, the employer and the employer's health plan. The problem is compounded if the employee has a chronic illness that is treatable in the early stages.

Med MatRx was formed to solve this problem. In conjunction with an on-site medical director who focuses on occupational issues or the employer's wellness group, Med MatRx performs comprehensive health screenings, which include blood tests and a physical examination, with local specialists at the work site. Assuming that a chronic medical condition is found during these corporate house calls, the employee is referred directly to the on-site specialist. The employee is under no obligation to see Med MatRx's specialists, but it is important that the employee receive the follow-up care they require. He or she does not have to make a separate appointment and miss work on a different day.

"There are companies that do piecemeal what we do as a whole," Mr. Fritzky said. Med MatRx, which has applied for a business method-of-use patent that could be approved within a year, has partnerships with physicians who specialize in a variety of health areas, including urology, occupational health, diabetes, allergy and asthma, oncology, otolaryngology, and eleven other specialties.

In order to make the health screenings as efficient and cost-effective as possible, Med MatRx analyzes a company's past insurance claims and employee demographics in order to determine the diseases for which employees are most at risk. Then Med MatRx tailors the screenings for that group. At Georgia Power, 80% of the employees are male, and many are older than 50 years. This group is most vulnerable to cardiology and urology diseases.

Saving Lives

Norman Lipscomb, 53, the employee from Georgia Power who learned he had two cancers, wholeheartedly supports Med MatRx's screening. "I feel it saved my life," he said. Mr. Lipscomb has worked for Georgia Power for 35 years. He often plays golf and rides a bicycle, and he used to run until he broke a leg playing softball when a base runner slid into him. Before the screening, in other words, he felt fine; he had no symptoms.

At a Med MatRx on-site physical in January 2000, a blood test turned up an elevated prostate-specific antigen (PSA) level. It was not high enough to cause worry, but when he was retested three months later, his PSA level was high enough to warrant a referral to a urologist, Vahan Kassabian, MD.

Within the next six months, Dr. Kassabian performed two prostate biopsies. The first found some abnormal cells, but the second showed a few cancerous cells. "We caught it just as it was beginning, so it was very, very, very, very early," Mr. Lipscomb said. After discussing treatment options with Dr. Kassabian, he decided to have a radical prostatectomy to remove the prostate gland.

During the workup for prostate surgery, a routine X-ray dealt Mr. Lipscomb a second blow. It showed spots on his left lung that turned out to be cancerous. "Here was a man who was feeling perfectly fine," Dr. Kassabian said. "He had no symptoms, and then he ends up with a double whammy."

Mr. Lipscomb discussed treatment options with a cardiothoracic physician and decided to have lung surgery. "My thinking was the same as with the prostate," he said. "Whatever it is, it's not supposed to be there. Let's get it out."

Lung surgery went well, and when he got the all clear, Dr. Kassabian removed the cancerous prostate in early October. Because both cancers were caught early, Mr. Lipscomb has an excellent prognosis, Dr. Kassabian said. If Mr. Lipscomb had waited until he had symptoms to go to a doctor, he would have had a significantly reduced chance for successful recovery.

Norman Lipscomb is not the only Georgia Power employee who credits a Med MatRx screening with saving his life. Woody King, Jr., an operating associate in the engineering department, discovered he needed immediate triple heart bypass surgery. Although Mr. King was not planning to have a screening, he ran into Steve Eisenberg, MD, a cardiologist, in the hallway at Georgia Power. Mr. King had not missed a day of work in nearly six years. He would sometimes feel burning in the chest when he mowed the lawn or played softball with his 9-year-old daughter, but if he relaxed, the burning went away. In addition, Mr. King had a family history of heart problems. His father, who also worked for Georgia Power, died on the job at age 54.

On a Thursday in May, Dr. Eisenberg, whose cardiology group has partnered with Med MatRx, convinced Mr. King to test his cholesterol. It was approximately 280, at least 80 points higher than normal. Dr. Eisenberg also performed an electrocardiogram on Mr. King, which turned up negative. Mr. King could not schedule any further tests during the weekend because he had to play a softball game, so he underwent a heart catheterization the following Tuesday. It showed three blocked arteries, what Dr. Eisenberg calls "widow-makers."

The next day, Mr. King had open-heart surgery. He was home by Sunday and spent six weeks recovering at home. It took less than one week from the time of the screening for Mr. King to be on the road to recovery. "If they hadn't found it, I'd probably be dead," Mr. King said. And if Georgia Power had not had a cardiologist at the work site, he probably would not have missed work to get further tests. "You underestimate the benefit that you get by bringing those specialists on-site, because otherwise, you have a lot of men who probably wouldn't even go to the doctor," said Jim Barber, a Georgia Power corporate communications official.

... and Saving Money

Preventive medicine works because it saves lives, such as in Mr. Lipscomb's and Mr. King's cases, but it also saves money. Health officials at Southern Company estimate that each early detection of prostate cancer saves the company $65,000 and at least two weeks of productivity. Each early detection of high cholesterol or other cardiac problems saves the company $32,000 and 30 days at work.

In 2000 alone, Southern Company's comprehensive men's health screenings, of which Med MatRx played an instrumental role, have saved the company a minimum of $450,000 and 190 work days. The screenings found five early cases of prostate cancer and four people at risk for cardiac arrest. (See 'Findings,' below.)

Gloria Hardegree, RN, healthcare services coordinator for Southern Company's employees in Georgia, said the company is devoted to preventive medicine, because it is not only beneficial for the employee's well-being but also is good for the bottom line.

"We want our employees to understand the importance of their hereditary risk factors," Ms. Hardegree said, "and also to learn positive lifestyle measures so they can maintain good health, rather than wait till their 40s and 50s, when they're having a problem, and have to regain good health."

Southern Company has worked with other organizations before to do health screenings at work, such as the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association and local hospitals, but the Med MatRx screening is more comprehensive, Ms. Hardegree said.

Mr. Lipscomb is now a promoter of the old adage, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." He said, "The way I see it, this benefits the employee and the company as well, because the company's put a lot of money into training people and they want them there for a long period of time."

The program has begun to attract industry recognition. Ms. Hardegree noted that the Southern Company has received two Georgia Corporate Health Care Challenge awards for employers that are considered to be progressive in self-funded healthcare programming. The company also just received the Year 2000 Leadership Award for employer-developed disease management programs from the Disease Management Association of America.

-Anne Bussman

Med MatRx's Findings at Southern Company

  • 5 prostate cancers
  • 4 cardiovascular diseases
  • 15 abnormal PSA levels
  • 39 abnormal PA TSH-thyroid levels
  • 105 abnormal blood-sugar levels
  • 410 abnormal cholesterol levels
  • 28 abnormal HDL-C
  • 272 abnormal LDL-C
  • 182 elevated triglyceride levels