Onsite health clinics present unique challenges for employers during a pandemic

By Andie Burjek

Mar. 31, 2020

In normal times, accessing health care on the property of an employer is a convenience. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, such access may stoke safety and hygiene concerns. Patients are supposed to avoid getting medical care unless it’s necessary in order to avoid coming into contact with the virus, and even accessing shared surfaces like biometric time clocks can put employees at risk.

According to Mercer, 17 percent of U.S. employers with at least 500 employees offer primary care through onsite or near-site clinics. During the COVID-19 outbreak in which people must social distance, employers may come across unique challenges with their onsite clinics and need to strategically rethink how to manage them

Mercer’s Worksite Clinic Consulting practice created a guide to manage employer-sponsored clinics during the pandemic. 

The guide focuses on best practices to mitigate risk for employees and patients, respond to staffing limitations, identify supply chain barriers and “optimize the interest of public health.” The top six steps are:

  1. Review and update existing plans.
  2. Don’t make staff or patients sick.
  3. Protect staff and patients by implementing new ways of working.
  4. Prepare for absenteeism of staff.
  5. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
  6. Review and address any contractual requirements.
  7. Regulatory considerations.

Just like larger health care systems, all employer health clinics and health workers must be prepared to evaluate and manage risks related to COVID-19. Proper infection-control equipment is a must, and clinic workers must know how to “safely isolate, transport and quarantine potential patients.” 

virtual care, health care systems, onsite clinics

Reducing the number of people requiring face-to-face examinations is necessary and can be accomplished via telehealth phone calls or video appointments.

Clinic staff members may get sick or need to take time off to care for a sick family member. Preparing for staff absenteeism doesn’t necessarily mean employees can’t work just because they can’t visit the clinic. Organizations can “repurpose clinical staff confined to their homes to be part of a virtual care team,” the guide stated. “This team can work together remotely to triage and serve patients via telephone or video visits to forestall the need for an in-person visit.”

Organizations can also support older staff members or those with health conditions by providing them virtual assignments only. 

Meanwhile, communication is a key factor in all these steps. Employers should plan to communicate with their staff at least once a day regarding the status of COVID-19 in their community and within their organization, according to the guide. What’s especially important to communicate is how the company is dealing with various issues and challenges brought on by the outbreak. 

Also read: During COVID-19 outbreak, utilize internal communications in your company crisis plan

Some communications best practices for employer clinics include:

  • Establish an emergency response command task force — all departments represented, reporting to the C-suite.
  • Establish a clinical response team, physician led — a team of clinicians who can track Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization information and summarize and distribute it to employees. 
  • Communicate with the employee population regularly via a patient app. 
  • Post information on the intranet and include information for appointment scheduling, the nurse call hot line and telehealth. 
  • Educate employees on slowing the number of patients to not overwhelm the health care system.    
  • Track lessons learned for post-pandemic response debriefing and process improvement. 

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Andie Burjek is an associate editor at

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