Do health insurers have a part to play in providing for the nation's health and wellbeing? Bobbi Sills reports
There are few institutions that evoke public pride like the National Health Service (NHS). Now in its 70th year, however, the system is facing the huge pressure of a rapidly increasing population. And at the time of writing, the NHS faces the unprecedented strain of the coronavirus pandemic, with private health companies increasingly working alongside the service to provide crucial support.
The recent developments of Covid-19 have highlighted the importance of the NHS, as well as the need for further funding. But could health insurers offer welcome relief to the cherished system that provides free healthcare to thousands of people annually?
The topic of whether health insurers have a part to play in providing for the nation's health and wellbeing was debated at the Annual Conference 2020, hosted by the Association of British Insurers (ABI) in February. Among the speakers were Fiona Harris, chief financial officer at BUPA; Debbie Kennedy, protection director at LV; and Dr Keith Klintworth, managing director of VitalityHealth.
In 2019, the government published its greenpaper, Advancing Our Health: Prevention in the 2020s, pledging a decade of proactive health prevention. A key focus of the paper was on taking early action against major preventable health problems as well as tackling key issues including mental health and obesity.
According to Ms Harris, insurance and protection products are increasingly providing additional services aimed at prevention and rehabilitation that can promote a healthy lifestyle and, in theory, reduce pressure on the NHS.
2.2% annual increase in patient attendances at A&E from 2006 to 2019
Ms Harris said: "Health insurance is a very efficient way to enable both employees and consumers to invest in and engage in their own health. We are seeing huge proactive use of direct access or virtual GP services, with consumers wanting to engage in their own healthcare journey."
Major insurers such as BUPA, Axa and Vitality offer customers 24/7 access to GP consultation services, allowing them to speak with a healthcare professional whenever and wherever they wish.
By encouraging the use of these services wherever possible and ideally before the individual falls ill, insurers can assist in the general wellbeing of the members they cover, particularly where healthy lifestyle changes are encouraged, said Ms Harris.
Ms Harris pointed to occupational health as a key area where insurers are well placed to answer government calls for businesses to provide better support to employees struggling with mental health issues.
Services such as employee assistance programmes provide early intervention in potential long-term health issues, by providing support to employees for personal and work-related issues, according to Ms Harris.
She told insurance professionals gathered at the event: "In the UK, the NHS can't afford to go it alone and doesn't need to."
Ms Harris's view was shared by Ms Kennedy, who said: "Private and public dynamics should not be working at odds with each other, as it is not sustainable for the NHS."
The coronavirus health crisis has raised new questions about the potential of private health insurance to reduce pressure on the healthcare system.
In March, the private hospital sector struck a historic deal with the NHS to relocate its entire national hospital capacity and resources, including more than 20,000 staff, in a bid to fight the pandemic.
With GP surgeries closed and non-urgent operations and procedures cancelled as a result of the UK lockdown measures, insurers such as BUPA have expanded their services to assist customers with managing their health from home.
In response to the crisis, David Hynman, CEO of BUPA, said: "Across our network of health clinics, we are rapidly working through how we can offer GP services and other resources we have access to, in order to support NHS 111 or other vital NHS services."
Increased mental health facilities including remote consultations are being rolled out to customers, as well as the Family Mental HealthLine for parents and carers to gain advice and support regarding their child's emotional wellbeing.
Dr Klintworth said: "We are committed to doing everything we can to support the country through this pandemic and keeping our members healthy and safe. Currently, a range of hospital services remain open to our members and we are expanding our primary care services, which will continue to be offered digitally."
Dr Klintworth announced that Vitality is to expand access to its GP advice telephone hotline for clinical guidance during Covid-19, to include all life and invest insurance members. Previously, the service was only available to health insurance members.
With the demand for NHS 111 services at an all-time high and, with minor health complaints increasingly being put on the backburner as a result of Covid-19, the expansion of private health services may well help to fill the gap and relieve pressure on the system.
As the NHS concentrates efforts on dealing with overwhelming demand, it seems the old adage that prevention is better than cure is one health insurers should strive to fulfil.
Bobbi Sills is communications executive of the CII