Technology is changing the way most of us do our jobs and live our lives – and the healthcare and international private medical insurance sectors are no different. Here, Charlotte Beugge examines how technological innovations in the healthcare space, sometimes referred to as “healthtech”, are helping both IPMI policyholders and insurers, in all kinds of ways…
The pace of change in delivering medical care shows no sign of slowing down. As recently as a hundred years ago, penicillin had yet to be discovered, meaning that even minor infections could result in death – and often did.
Another century from now, though, and those who fall sick or are injured may well be treated by robots instead of human doctors, and be given treatment devices, such as drains, made by 3D printers.
It might not even take another 100 years, actually, for such innovations are already in development, industry sources report.
So it’s not surprising to discover that the international private medical insurance industry is also working hard to harness technology to help its customers: not just in the way they are treated, but also in how their claims are dealt with.
Today, for example, if a company posted an individual to a far-flung outpost that’s hundreds of miles from what would be considered to be a reasonably good medical facility, such as a for-profit clinic or medical centre, they would still be able to enjoy a “private consultation” with a qualified and appropriate physician – by means of their smartphone or computer.
Then, when the time came to file their claim with their iPMI provider, they would simply use an app on their phone.
Some will, of course, point out that such a system would appear to lack the personal touch that pretty much everyone agrees is a key element in good medical treatment.
How, they will ask, do iPMI providers, and the healthcare companies they urge their members to go to for treatment, propose to ensure the human factor isn’t lost?
In other words, are expatriate individuals – who are often far from home and living in countries with which they may not be all that familiar, or well-integrated into – really ready for this brave and new a world?
‘Bring on Dr Robot’
Actually, it seems they very well might be – certainly if it meant that their treatment would cost significantly less as a result.
Although it wasn’t focused exclusively on expats, a survey carried out by Cigna, the US-based global health insurer and published earlier this year, found that of those interviewed, 67% would be happy to be seen by a robotic doctor if the cost was much lower than seeing a human doctor would be; and 68% said they would be willing to have a surgical operation performed by a robot-assisted doctor.
In addition, 13% reported that they had actually already experienced a “remote check-up”. And 59% said they currently use – or plan to use – health apps of some kind over the next year.
But it’s not just about apps: portals, it seems, are popular with iPMI customers, or so industry executives report.
Portals and apps
Generali Global Health’s commercial director Stuart Leatherby, for one, said his company’s online portal, which members can access on phones, tablets and other digital platforms, has been extremely well-received since it was launched last year.
“Members can submit and track claims, [and] find a doctor or hospital within our global network of over 700,000 specialists and 10,000 acute care facilities worldwide, as well as update their own profile online,” Leatherby, pictured left, added.
Another advantage to the online consultation process, Leatherby noted, as compared with a traditional doctor visit, is that online sessions can be recorded, so policyholders can review the advice they receive. Prescriptions can be sent electronically too.
Aetna International, the international arm of Hartford, Connecticut-based health insurance provider Aetna, meanwhile, also has a secure member portal it calls “Health Hub”, which it recently redesigned.
Here, Aetna International plan members can find doctors, medical facilities, their records and plan details – as well as a library of medical information and wellness tips aimed at the international plan holder.
Damian Lenihan, executive director distribution, UK markets for Aetna International, said Aetna customers can use Health Hub to arrange a consultation with a doctor via Skype. “This means that even if you’re in the middle of Africa, you can see a doctor who will call you back at a time [that’s] good for you.”
‘Fifth of claims now made via app’
A measure of how quickly customers are adopting the new technology can be seen in the fact that a fifth of Now Health International’s claims are being made via its smartphone app, which it launched just two years ago, and upgraded last year.
It works on both android and Apple handsets.
In addition to using it to file claims, Now Health clients can use it to find their nearest medical provider and to book an appointment.
Alison Massey, group marketing director of Now Health International (pictured left), said the smartphone app and secure online portfolio were “testimony to our commitment to use digital tools to innovate, and make it easier for our globally mobile members to access their international health insurance wherever they are”.
For Lee Gerry of UK-based IPMI provider Expatriate Group, the real technological benefit for IPMI providers and customers is that geo-location services allow customers to find medical providers, pharmacies and even other useful services such as taxis and hotels easily – helpful in a large city, but even more helpful in a foreign country.
“The benefit to the insurer is that this allows us to guide customers to using facilities that we have vetted, and where we may have agreements in place,” he added.
Wearable technology could be the next step forward for iPMI providers. Not only can this help individuals manage their own health – for example, by tracking their heart rate – but, Generali’s Leatherby noted, the data provided could help insurers too.
“Insurers and healthcare providers will be able to more easily understand both the clinical state of the insured members [as well as] how their lifestyles and behavioural patterns are affecting their health,” he said.
Technology: use in fraud detection helps lower costs
One area in which technology is helping international private medical insurance providers to lower the rates they charge their policyholders is in detecting fraud.
Damian Lenihan, executive director of distribution, UK markets for Aetna International, says being able to trace fraud is “one of the most useful aspects” of the new technology insurers now have at their disposal.
“We can use it to spot aberrant claims – for example, if there is a claim for a certain amount for treatment in China, our technology allows us to know whether that claim is for far more than we would expect,” he explains.
“A reduction in the number of fraudulent claims is good for policyholders, as it helps contain costs and thus premiums.”
Great (not to mention entertaining) as a wearable device that monitors one’s vital signs may be, insurance industry executives say that at a certain point, most people who are concerned about their health, or who have just become injured, yearn to be able to talk to another human being about it – particularly a human being who has had some experience in a professional capacity with their particular ailment.
Aetna International’s Lenihan reported that although Aetna’s policyholders “like that they can get help 24 hours a day online,” such online help “doesn’t replace telephone contact”.
“We will always have that too. Those with medical cover are, on average, on the higher end of the age scale, and many will want personal phone contact.”
Andrew Apps, of Bellwood Prestbury, said one possible problem is that the smartphone apps policyholders are being encouraged to use have often been “written by [people] in their twenties”, with the result that “the text is so small no-one can read it”.
He added that while there are insurers who will take claims through an app, these apps aren’t always connected properly to the insurers’ systems, with the result that the process is not quite as seamless as it’s meant to be.
Websites, phone lines and good old paper documents, in other words, still seem to have their place, at least for a little while longer.
Forward through technology
Another area in which technological advances are increasingly coming into play, and affecting the iPMI sector, is that of medical advances. Whether it’s new drugs, improved scanning and diagnostic techniques, or the development of less invasive surgical methods, all ultimately benefit the end patient.
But while technology can be a cost-reducer, it can also cause costs to soar.
The cost to the patient – and thus, their insurer – of being prescribed certain of the latest “wonder drugs” can top £150,000 a year. Also hugely expensive can be proton beam and heavy ion therapy, used in the treatment of some cancers.
As for robots, well, they can be expensive too, and for now, at least, the robot may not offer a better outcome than traditional, non-robotic (and thus cheaper) care.
Insurance companies, therefore, tend to take things slowly.
AXA International, for example, has a policy of not covering experimental or unproven treatments, according to a company spokesperson.
“This can, however, be an emotive issue when dealing with customers who have either done their own research into an experimental treatment, and hope this could be the answer for [them], or who have been given a recommendation by their treating doctor,” the spokesperson added.
“However, we constantly review and re-evaluate our products so that while experimental treatment may not be funded now, it doesn’t mean this will be the case in the future, should the medical evidence change.”
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