FORTUNE Small Business

Fast drug tests

Does a new screening device for employees pay?

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(FSB Magazine) -- In May a Texas-based customer asked Hanvey to find two temps for each of its 50 home-improvement stores by the following week. Hanvey reluctantly turned down the project, leaving $3,000 in profits on the table. "We were losing serious money because we couldn't test people fast enough," he says.

A few weeks later Hanvey scoured the Internet for a quicker option and found eScreen (escreen.com), a Kansas City, Mo., drug-testing service that delivers results in 15 minutes. Unlike traditional tests, which must typically be mailed off for review by medical personnel, eScreen's exams are processed on the spot, then posted on the Internet.

Hanvey logs onto eScreen's website, schedules appointments for candidates at nearby clinics, and waits for the results to appear in his online inbox. Access to myescreen.com is bundled into the price of the tests, which cost $25 to $30 apiece. While the fee is comparable to one for a traditional exam, Hanvey used to spend $70 to $100 on each test because of mailing costs; going paperless saves him $25,000 to $30,000 a year.

eScreen's lightning speed derives from automation. When an applicant visits any of the 1,350 clinics that contract with it, he or she urinates into eScreen's patented eCup, which siphons the specimen to test strips. The cup slots into an apparatus called an eReader, which uses optical-imaging technology to scan the test strips for the presence of lines that indicate positive or negative results, much like a drugstore pregnancy test. Once the results are digitized, eScreen's clients can access them on the web.

"Tracking the results from the point of collection is very beneficial for hiring," says eScreen CEO Robert Thompson, 46. "If you have a no-show, you can immediately contact other applicants."

Hanvey spends about $25,000 on tests annually and figures that the faster turnaround will generate $60,000 in additional profits this year. "We're not turning down work anymore because of drug screens," he says happily.

Drug use in the workplace costs U.S. companies more than $81 billion a year in turnover and lost productivity, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Not surprisingly, the U.S. drug-testing market has grown rapidly in recent years and is now valued at more than $1.5 billion annually.

eScreen, which expects to rack up $50 million in sales this year, commands about 5% of that market, which is dominated by big players such as Quest Diagnostics (questdiagnostics.com). Some ten other drug-testing services offer immediate onsite results, according to Laura Shelton, executive director of the Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association (datia.org) in Washington, D.C. One competitor, Express Diagnostics International (drugcheck.com), sells an onsite urinalysis device called the DrugCheck Test Cup. Express vice president Paul Johnson claims that the DrugCheck can turn around results in five minutes.

But while the DrugCheck and other urinalysis devices rely on an administrator to interpret the lines on testing strips, Shelton says that only eScreen currently offers fully automated analysis. Thompson claims that automation increases accuracy by eliminating human error. And while 95% of tests come back negative, positive exams are sent to laboratories for confirmation at no extra cost.

Shelton describes urine testing as "highly accurate" but cautions that it's not always the best choice for employers. That's because urinalysis typically can't detect either very recent or very old drug use. "If someone goes out for their lunch break, smokes pot, and takes a urine test, the test will come back negative because the drug hasn't metabolized," she says. Other tests, such as those on saliva, can detect more recent drug use, while hair exams can show months-old activity.

An eScreen test may not reveal whether an employee was drug-free six months ago, but it will show if she is hirable tomorrow. "Companies get their first-choice applicants, applicants get to work, and managers aren't on the phone all day," says Thompson. The process still starts with the plastic cup, but it ends with a single mouse click.  To top of page

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