Healthtech and digital medicine are increasingly been pushed as amongst the most effective ways to manage workplace wellbeing, health, absence and engagement. Group risk providers are starting to adopt new digital solutions as a way to boost sales to new clients, and help drive engagement among existing members. So what is the scale of the benefits offered by these digital innovations, and do they also have their limitations?
These issues were the subject of a recent debate hosted by Corporate Adviser with a group of leading employee benefit consultants and advisers and representatives from Unum.
Unum has recently significantly upgraded its digital offering. It has partnered with Square Health to launch a range of support services through a single ‘Help@Hand’ app, with a virtual GP at the core of a suite of services that are all delivered within the app.
Those attending agreed digital healthcare solutions could transform the way group risk providers approach issues like engagement, although they said that tech alone is not going to solve all the industry’s problems.
Howden Employee Benefits head of benefits strategy Steve Herbert said the shift towards more digital propositions was inevitable. “Providers have to embrace this new technology, if they want to get their message across effectively.
“You just have to look at the demographics: GP services are under increasing pressure with the number of doctors falling, while we have an ageing and growing population.
“Smart phone use has increased dramatically over the past 10 years, so I would expect to see an increased number of providers offering mobile health apps, and employees using them. It’s how people chose to engage with all sorts of services, from mobile banking to ordering their groceries.”
Towergate group risk and protection consultant Terry Fromant pointed out that there were clear examples of digital technology delivering results in other parts of the group risk market.
He said: “Cash plan providers that have adopted digital technology and mobile apps have seen a huge increase in engagement levels.”
He added that when talking to clients about a range of group risk and health services, one of the first questions he is asked is whether they can offer an app to employees.
Unum customer solutions director Glenn Thompson said: “Digital is certainly part of the answer, when it comes to driving engagement and new sales, but it is not the whole answer.”
He pointed out that over the past year the provider has seen an increase in sales of life, protection and critical illness policies to first-time clients. Many of these have been bought without this digital capability.
What drives engagement, he says, is ensuring these are tangible benefits that people want to use — in other words that there is substance behind these whizzy high-tech applications.
He added: “Does the delivery of such benefits have to be digital. Well, in today’s world the answer is probably ‘yes’.”
However, those attending the debate agreed that some individuals may still be at present more reluctant to use mobile technology for healthcare purposes.
Square Health executive chairman Dr Bippon Vinayak pointed out that the company provides a range of digital healthcare solutions for the insurance and affinity market.
He said that on average around 10 per cent of those with access to these digital services download the relevant app. However, he pointed out that there is significant variation. “With PMI propositions this might be the entry point to the claims system, so we see almost 100 per cent saturation.
“The communications from providers and employers can also make a difference. Without this the figure can be as low as 3 or 4 per cent.”
Lifesearch business protection and group leader Alan Richardson pointed out that better onboarding strategies and more effective communications could address this issue, and help drive up the number of employees downloading these apps.
He said: “This is something providers could help with, so we have something sexy to put in front of employers. If it is just one email telling staff to download the app, most will forget to do so until they need it.”
Basic strategies like, posters around the workplace could help he said. “Better information on the potential cost savings to the employer might help some promote these benefits more effectively.”
PIB head of healthcare, risk and technology Clare Dare says even at 10 per cent, this is still more significant engagement than group risk providers typically get with current benefit schemes.
However, she says there are challenges for employers. “Often they can have a number of different healthcare solutions on their platform. It can be a question of discussing with clients what they should prioritise: income protection, cash plan or PMI, and associated benefits be it physiotherapy, EAPs or second opinion medical services.
“There may be a range different benefits. If employers chose to drive engagement on one, there is the danger that other benefits get forgotten about.”
She added that clients also have to think about how engagement and messaging works across different segments of their workforce, including tech-savvy millennials and those more reluctant to use digital or web-based services.
Stackhouse Poland account director, health and protection Steve Thomson said that ‘nudges’ can be a good way to build engagement in employee benefits, with messages being targeted to certain employees at appropriate times.
Herbert points out that there can be technical challenges too. He pointed out that there may be a concerted effort to get employees to download the relevant app when the proposition is put in place.
“But the flip side is if these aren’t used on a regular basis, then when you do need it — for example to book a virtual doctor’s consultation — the app needs updating, and employees need the relevant passwords and so on.”
He said the key to greater engagement is ensuring people use these apps on a more regular basis. “It could be something as simple as a step counter, with rewards for reaching certain goals. Or the app could also dovetail with any reward or perks programme offered by the employer.”
Herbert predicts that in future employers might have their own apps, which cover a whole range of functions, from HR and salary details to insurance, perks and healthcare solutions.
However, Vinayak points out that one of the advantages of third-party apps is the employees are reassured that confidential health details are not shared with their employer. “Confidentiality is really important, there is a lot of education needed on this to reassure employees,” he said.
Vinayak said one of the unique selling points of the service being launched by Unum and Square Health is that it is a single platform, accessed through one app.
The initial phase offers a range of services, such as a virtual GP, physiotherapy, and mental health pathways. The second phase will combine this with some of Unum’s existing services such as its rehab service, all delivered through the same entry point.
Those at the roundtable event agreed that a single app makes the service more convenient and accessible for employees — and is likely to boost engagement levels as a result.
However Unum pointed out that, unusually in the sector, these various different services are all offered through the one provider, Square Health.
Thompson said this offered a more joined up approach. For example, employees might access the physiotherapy pathway directly through the app. But this assessment could lead to a referral to the virtual GP services.
This works both ways: those consulting the virtual GP may be signposted to get physio or mental health support. In these cases all the relevant notes and details will be there as it is the same company providing these clinical services.
Thompson added: “There are services out there where there is a single app upfront, but users will then be passed to different companies depending what service is used.“
As these support services become more widely offered, intermediaries and advisers will need to assess both the range and the quality of these various services.
Many attending the debate said they remained sceptical about some digital applications that relied too heavily on artificial intelligence and algorithms, without input from healthcare professionals.
Vinayak argued a key plus of Square Health’s proposition, which offers third party and white-labelling services to a number of insurers, is that firm was set up and run by doctors.
He said: “There are a lot of gimmicky products out there. These might have been devised by tech specialist. We are nervous about automated systems that claim success rates of 60 or 70 per cent. This is not good enough.
“All our journeys have a clinician at the centre who will triage and direct people to the appropriate service.”
He cited the example of a patient who thought they had an underlying muscular problem from playing squash. Once relevant diagnostic tests were taken it transpired they had pancreatic cancer.
Richardson agreed these digitally-delivered services are a useful addition, but should not replace human doctors. He said he would like to see valued added benefits in the group risk market combining digital convenience and accessibility, with the option for face-to-face consultations when needed.
Those attending the round table did not think services, such as the Babylon Health at Hand virtual GP, for example, which is now available via the NHS, would prove to be very popular, as they required people to opt out of their local GP services.
Thompson said that it is important that group risk solutions work alongside NHS services.
Vinayak said the majority of people using its virtual GP service, are for a less serious, episodic incidents, which may be resolved after one video consultation and no further referral is needed.
Digital services will increasingly be a vital part of any group risk proposition and this presents both opportunities and challenges for the intermediary sector.
On the one hand, those attending the roundtable agreed, these can provide real benefits, for both employees and employers, particularly in relation to more detailed data and management information, helping to design more tailored services, and manage future claims costs.
But as the market proliferates, the challenge for advisers and EB consultants is to assess the various products being offered, to ensure they are being used effectively by clients to deliver maximum benefit.