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What will the New Year hold for health benefits?

Posted by Shane Reid on February 13, 2020

We’ve all done it: consulted with “Dr. Google” at the first sign of an illness. We truly live in a digital-first world when our first instinct is to type our symptoms into a search engine, rather than pick up the phone and dial (do we even dial anymore?) the doctor’s office.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. With a few simple clicks of the computer mouse or a couple of taps on our smartphone screen, we can do practically anything online – watch a movie, read a book, buy our groceries, purchase a car, rent a villa in Tuscany.

Technologies & Opportunities

New technologies are also opening up new frontiers in health care and health insurance. Consider virtual doctor visits – the modern version of house calls.’ By logging on to a digital platform, patients can skip the waiting line and get professional medical attention from the comfort and privacy of their home.

Not only is virtual care providing easier, faster access to expert care, it’s creating that seamless, 24/7 on-demand experience that today’s consumers have come to expect. That’s not to mention how it’s easing the burden on our overcrowded emergency rooms and reducing brick and mortar costs, while taking down access barriers to treatment.

We don’t need to gaze into a crystal ball to predict that technology will continue to be a driving force for transformative change for our industry in 2020.

Shifting Dynamics

As the year unfolds, we expect digital transformation and maturing consumerism will accelerate and intersect with other trends that are influencing and shaping the health insurance landscape from spiralling drug costs to the ever-growing prevalence of chronic disease.

We’ve taken a thorough look at the trends and have done a deep dive into our own data to create this 2020 forecast. We encourage advisors and plan sponsors to use this as a planning guide for the year ahead. Our goal is to help our clients navigate today’s fast-moving, highly complex landscape with forward-looking, cost-effective solutions that deliver full value on their benefit investment.

Digital Health Care

The adoption of new technologies is slowly gaining momentum in Canada’s health care space, though still lagging behind the rest of the world. A 2019 report by Medisys Health Group found that only nine per cent of Canadian employers were offering some form of virtual health care, falling well below employee demand at 71 per cent.

This mirrors the results of a survey by the Canadian Medical Society in which 70 per cent of respondents said they would opt for a virtual physician visit if available through their benefit plan. A further 75 per cent said they believed web and mobile technology could help solve major issues in the public healthcare system.

There’s plenty of evidence to support their view. A study by Canada Health Infoway revealed that 70 per cent of ER and clinic visits could be replaced by online consultations without any impact on quality of care. This same survey indicates a ripple effect on workplace absenteeism.

  • 18.8 million hours per year in workplace absences could be saved if Canadians consulted with their physicians electronically
  • $400 million per year could be added to Canada’s GDP if Canadians could access digital health services instead of taking time off work to see a doctor in person

A 2019 Industry Report by Medisys Health Group also made a compelling business case for online care. Medisys calculated that a mid-size company could recover more than 2,600 hours of productivity and save $174,000 if even half of their employees use virtual care. Those savings balloon to over 9,800 hours and $673,000 for larger organizations.

Virtual care is poised for significant growth as more and more employers begin to see the measureable difference it makes to health outcomes, operational efficiencies, and organizational performance. That’s backed up by results of a 2019 survey by AON. Of the 209 organizations that participated, 19 per cent are currently offering virtual medical care, while 34 per cent would consider offering it in the future.

Mental Health

Indeed, virtual care is already considered core mental health programming by some employers who recognize the return on investment. For example, early action and access to mental health services is shown to help decrease productivity losses by as much as 30 per cent.

Going forward, online care could become mainstream in helping to address one of Canada’s most pressing health care challenges, with one in five members of the working age population struggling to cope with anxiety, depression and other psychological disorders, and at a cost of about $1,500 per employee per year. By 2021, the total economic cost of mental illness is projected to reach $88.8 billion.

Chronic Disease

Next generation tools, like telemedicine, pharmacogenetic testing and digital therapy, are entering the marketplace at a time when we’re seeing an upward trend in chronic conditions, placing even more strain on our health care system’s overstretched resources.

Among them is obesity. We’ve seen dramatic increase in Canadians who are overweight or obese, jumping from 49 per cent in 1978 to 64 per cent in 2017. This is having a profound impact on the workplace, costing $7.1 billion and health expenditures and low productivity.

However, we know that by learning proper treatment methods and adopting healthy lifestyles, individuals can control their chronic condition and even reserve or delay the onset of disease. In the case of heart disease and stroke by as much as 14 years, while a mere 5 to 10 per cent in weight loss can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by nearly 60 per cent!

Digital tools, along with traditional resources like Employee Assistance Programs and Health Spending Accounts, can help employees make smart choices when it comes to their health care, resulting in less absenteeism and greater productivity.

Customer Centricity

With medical information readily available at their fingertips, today’s consumers have never been more knowledgeable – or have had higher expectations of the services we, as an industry, can offer. This means we need to improve the ease of use and speed of our services to match those of other industries. Think Amazon. Netflix. Google. The onus is on us to offer:

  • Faster, friendlier, simpler process and tools
  • More self-service options
  • Holistic, intuitive user experiences that are as intuitive as online shopping and add value at each touchpoint.

Five-Generation Workforce

The consumerization and digitalization of the workplace is complicated by the fact that for first time in history, five distinct generations – traditionalists, baby boomers, Gen X, millennials and Gen Z – work side by side. Their benefit needs and expectations are as diverse as their demographics.

Forget the conventional one-size-fits-all approach. To be responsive and relevant to the modern workforce, we need to create cross-generational benefit plans that go above and beyond our traditional offering. These packages can be characterized as having a blend of options that offer greater:

  • Flexibility
  • Choice
  • Control
  • Access
  • Personalization

These features can be found in technology-enabled solutions like:

  • Interactive health portals
  • Virtual care: Digital therapy, telemedicine, physiotherapy and more
  • Robust mobile apps with real-time claims adjudication
  • Digital health marketplaces
  • Targeted health messaging

M-Health Technologies

From mobile apps to wearables and wearable sensors, m-health technologies (the “m” representing mobile) have burst onto the health care scene in a big way. One of the best known examples is the Fitbit, which allows us to track everything from the number of calories we consume to the number of hours of sleep we get each night. These technologies have the built-in functionalities to promote self-care, reduce risk behaviours and develop healthy habits.

As of March 2018, there were over 318,000 health apps available on the top app stores worldwide, nearly double the number of apps available in 2015 – with more than 200 apps being added each day, according to IQVIA. About one-quarter of these apps are directed at monitoring and managing chronic disease. Together with health wearables, they can help consumers to control symptoms, avoid triggers, keep blood sugar and cholesterol levels in check and lower their risk for other conditions.

Expect these m-health technologies to continue to proliferate, helping plan members to take charge of their health – and on their terms.

Data Analytics

Technology is also fuelling advances in data analytics, which used effectively can be a game changer for organizations. The actionable insights gained from data analytics can optimize benefits utilization, improve population and personal health outcomes, lower costs and engage members. Looking ahead, we believe there will be an upward trend in the number of benefit plans being designed and delivered by data-driven insights.

As you can see we are operating in an increasingly connected, consumer-focused environment. This compels us to develop beyond-the-pill solutions that enhance service delivery, improve the efficacy of treatment, decrease claim duration and contain plan costs. These are solutions that are technology enabled, more consumer centric and informed by data analytics, supported by strategic partnerships that accelerate innovation, amplify growth and make a real difference for all Canadians.

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