As more employers reopen their offices, stores, and warehouses, a growing number of health tech companies are pitching smartphone apps and other tools to help them bring employees back to work safely in the Covid-19 era.

The tools go far beyond the infrared thermometers and temperature checks that have dominated the conversation around safely reopening. The new wave of software products allows employers to direct their workers to get a Covid-19 test, clear them to return to work, track their symptoms, and trace the contacts of anyone who tests positive for the coronavirus.

The rollouts are forcing digital health vendors and their employer customers to navigate a range of unprecedented legal, cultural, and financial questions. Among them: What kinds of surveillance can employers require their workers to submit to — and will employees actually use these tools?

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There’s also a looming question of whether employers will be willing to shell out for yet another wellness product at a time when they’re trying to avoid more layoffs and furloughs.

“They’re going to have to, to some degree, if they want to bring their employees back,” said Greg Chittim, who co-leads the digital health and health IT practice at the consulting firm Health Advances.

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In industries where routine screenings such as drug testing is not the norm, Chittim said, “a large portion of the workforce will need to wrestle with how they transition to that — and the executive teams and the benefits managers need to figure out how to buy that, and who to buy it from, and what they need, and how they can do it.”

So far, the push on these offerings has been led by health tech companies that — in normal times — charge employers to help their workers navigate their health benefits. For example, Castlight Health last month rolled out its Working Well tool, which, among other things, uses machine learning to let employers forecast trends in health and productivity for the workforce.

Then there’s Collective Health, which last month unveiled its Collective Go tool, which offers employers a free set of guidelines for returning to work and a paid app for workers to check their symptoms and exposures and navigate the status of their Covid-19 tests.

The idea is to provide evidence-based guidance to employers that otherwise don’t know how to go about developing a return-to-work plan, said Rajaie Batniji, the company’s chief health officer. “In the absence of clear leadership here or clear guidance from the government, a lot of employers feel like they’re having to play armchair epidemiologist — and very few employers are really positioned to do that,” Batniji said.

Collective is immediately charging for the offering — an approach that stands in contrast to some other back-to-work tools being rolled out for free, at least for now. Microsoft and the insurer UnitedHealth Group last month announced that they would offer U.S. employers free access to their ProtectWell smartphone app, designed to screen employees for Covid-19 symptoms and clear them for work.

Collective said it is signing up employers for the service through deals that are being inked separately from its existing benefits navigation contracts. The company declined to disclose any names of its new Collective Go customers, but said that one of its first customers is in the childcare services category; it is also seeing demand from medical systems, gig-economy services, manufacturers, and retail.

Many health tech companies are pitching their products to industries such as manufacturing that rely on warehouses and other physical workspaces, as well as essential businesses that don’t need to go “back to work,” but whose employees have been at their workplace throughout the pandemic. The businesses they’re less focused on: Mostly white-collar industries that have the luxury of allowing their employees to continue to work from the couch at home.

That’s by design. While tech companies in Silicon Valley and other urban hubs have been early adopters of some digital health technologies, they have not historically accounted for a huge chunk of the revenue for employee wellness companies, which count on large blue chip employers with staff who tend to be older and sicker. And in the Covid-19 era, tech companies have signaled that they may be among the last to bring their workers back into the office, making them unlikely clients in the back-to-work business.

As has been the case in the employee wellness sector for years, some of the back-to-work tools may raise questions about whether employers are invading their workers’ privacy — and so digital health vendors pitching pandemic-related services are taking steps to try to steer clear of such concerns.

Consider the health care artificial intelligence startup Jvion, which announced last month that it has developed an AI-powered survey for employers that their workers can take to get a recommendation on returning to work. Based on the employees’ answers, the tool spits out three possible statuses: cleared to return, medical clearance required, or cannot return to work.

The tool lets employees print out a letter with that status that they can hand to their bosses. Jvion is also working on an update to the tool that would notify an employer of that status directly. But that’s all that will ever be shared with an employer, said John Showalter, a physician who serves as Jvion’s chief product officer.

“The employers that we’ve talked to are very much concerned with their employee privacy,” Showalter said. “They don’t want the answers that we have from our surveys, and we don’t want to give them the answers from the surveys.”

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