A little over a year ago we confidently shared our forecast for health benefits trends in 2020, shortly before a global health and economic crisis began to unfold.
We predicted that digital transformation and maturing consumerism would accelerate and intersect with other trends like the rising incidence of chronic disease and prevalence of mental health concerns in the workplace.
We invited advisors and plan sponsors to use the forecast as a planning guide for the year ahead; to help clients navigate “today’s fast-moving, highly complex landscape.”
While hindsight can be “20/20” when considering the changes and uncertainty we’ve faced, the forecast largely held true with one key exception. Digital transformation hit warp speed when the pandemic struck.
There was no need for a crystal ball. As an all-in-one carrier, it’s our role and responsibility to monitor the latest from our industry. This allows us to create relevant and responsive solutions for our clients that keep pace with and even stay ahead of the trends.
Long before COVID-19, we could see the winds of change blowing across our landscape. We ramped up development of technology-enabled health solutions and seamless end-to-end processes and embedded them into in our product roadmaps and service models. The result is an expanded, modern offering, with options ranging from our Connected Care digital storefront to our Optional Benefits purchase platform.
One year later, we’ve taken another look at the trends, and dove deep into our own data, to produce this forecast for 2021 — even as we continue to face many unknowns. We hope you will use it as a map in charting a course for you and your clients in navigating the pandemic and beyond.
Prior to the pandemic, Canada was lagging behind the rest of the world in the adoption of new technologies to access and receive health care. However, we could see virtual care was gaining some momentum and predicted it was “poised for significant growth” in our 2020 forecast.
Then COVID-19 arrived and during lockdown, Canadians moved online to get treatment, receive counselling, fill prescriptions, and even reduce pain through physiotherapy (included in the suite of virtual services we offer through Connected Care) — all from the safety and comfort of their homes.
Research suggests virtual care is here to stay. A recent industry study found that the majority of Canadians have not only grown comfortable logging onto a digital platform for care, 65% are more likely to choose virtual care over in-person visits for simple or routine health advice. The vast majority of patients (83%) who responded to a separate study of virtual primary care visits in Ontario rated their online care equal to or better than in-person care.
Technology is also providing caregivers with more tools than ever to treat their patients, allowing them to deliver accurate and timely diagnoses, provide optimal treatment and enhance continuity of care, throughout the health care continuum, from prevention to rehabilitation.
Look for the digitization of health care to grow exponentially in the year ahead, in tandem with increasing awareness among all stakeholder of the measurable impacts new technologies can make to health outcomes, operational efficiencies and organizational performance.
The pandemic shone the public spotlight on mental health, heightening the need to increase services and supports for employees struggling with depression, anxiety, and stress. A report by Deloitte, published last August, estimated Canada could experience a 2.6-fold increase in visits to mental health practitioners and up to a 20% increase in antidepressant prescriptions due to the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
Another industry report, published in February of this year, indicated that 56% of Canadian women were experiencing COVID-related distress, as were 44% of men. On a positive note, this same survey, found that more than two-thirds (68%) of employed Canadians felt their employer has supported their mental health amid the pandemic.
An even higher percentage of workers (86%) reported things like social check-ins, flexible work arrangements and access to mental health resources were more helpful to them during this crisis than financial support. That’s something employers may want to keep in mind in preparing workplaces for the future.
Before the pandemic, flexibility and personalization had already become key table stakes in benefit plan design, as new generations of tech-savvy, wellness-conscious Canadians enter the workplace. For employers, that means giving strong consideration to versatile and customizable options like personal spending accounts, which give employees greater choice — and control — over how they contribute to their wellbeing and spend their benefit dollars.
Digital self-service options like web-based health portals, on-demand tele-counselling, and medication management features on mobile apps also help employees take greater ownership of their health care.
On that note, employees are increasingly looking to become active participants in their health care decision making, including how their care is delivered and funded. They are also seeking access to their health information, wanting more support in navigating the complex health care system and accessing care in a timely manner. Again, thanks to new technologies, this is being enabled through the use of digital health platforms and delivery channels, as well as artificial intelligence.
In addition to the solutions listed above, employers can help employees ease into the driver’s seat of their health care by reimbursing them for the purchase of mobile apps and wearable devices that promotes healthy habits and reduces risk behaviours for disease. Another option is covering the counselling and education services of a health coach to help employees gain the knowledge — and the confidence — they need to take charge of a chronic health condition.
The pandemic was a wake-up call about getting protected for the unexpected. As a result, optional benefits that offer greater protection — and peace of mind — against the financial impact of a sudden illness, injury or death are expected to see continued uptake in 2021.
This is supported by a survey commissioned by Medavie Blue Cross in early 2021, which found over 80% of Canadian companies offer some form of optional benefits to their employees and, of those that don’t, 90% were open to providing them in the near future.
By giving employees the ability to top up their critical illness, AD&D and life insurance, employers are not only helping them safeguard their finances, they are demonstrating concern for their wellbeing.
Traditional benefit plans will continue to give way to more robust packages that not only reflect our increasingly customer-centric, digital-first world and experiential economy, but our multi-generational workplace.
This is where solutions like health and personal spending accounts come into play by covering a wide range of options, from elder care to childcare, for the five generations that are now working side by side. In today’s competitive environment, health benefits can be a deal-makers — or breakers — when negotiating an offer of employment, which makes a comprehensive cross-generational plan even more essential.
Digitization is becoming foundational to the client experience, offering new ways to engage, transact, and address pain points. Today’s plan sponsors and members have the same expectations for the 24/7 on-demand experiences they have as consumers.
This means developing simplified and personalized products and processes as intuitive as online shopping. Our Optional Benefits application process is designed with this in mind, giving employees a user-friendly experience from start to finish – with purchases made within minutes, all online.
It has been said that today’s employers will “win with empathy”, meaning those who show genuine concern for the wellbeing of their employees will be rewarded with high rates of retention and recruitment. Given the transient nature of today’s workforce, and the fierce competition for new hires, the importance of this cannot be understated.
In 2020, we were encouraged to see employers place greater emphasis on workplace health and wellness, going beyond their core offering to ensure employees were connected, protected, and supported. Be it online doctors or mental health webinars, taken together, all steps, big and small, helped to build and strengthen the resilience of their organizations.
The pandemic turned the winds of change into headwinds, shifting and shaping the landscape like a major storm carving the ocean shore. Sudden, swift, and dramatic. We had to pivot fast, in some cases within days, even hours, to transition our workforce to home offices, equip them with the tools and resources to do their jobs effectively, while making sure their physical and mental health needs were looked after remotely.
Employers have been presented with both extraordinary challenges and opportunities to turn disruption into transformation. History being our greatest teacher, we can apply the lessons we have learned from our pandemic experience to emerge stronger and healthier together.
Want to know more about what’s trending in health care delivery and the insurance industry? Read a Q&A with Dave Adams in the Globe and Mail on helping employees stay connected, protected and supported in 2021.