By Dr. Lynn Gordon, Chief Medical Officer, Charles Taylor Assistance.
COVID-19 has had a major impact across the world; not just killing over a million people, but also disrupting the global economy, stalling global movement and forcing large swathes of the world’s population to work from home.
The 70 million+ cases of COVID-19 to date (confirmed by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control at time of writing) have inevitably strained global resources. And, although it’s too early to assess the full impact of the virus on the international accident and health sector, it looks set to leave its mark. But it's not all negative.
Undeniably, COVID-19 has created challenges to the accessibility and availability of global healthcare; not least by causing international borders to be closed at short notice, local medical facilities to become stretched and hospital beds to become limited. This has affected COVID-19 and non COVID-19 patients alike.
At the same time, the virus has highlighted shortcomings in resource-limited countries, for instance where oxygen supplies are low. In countries that have created state-designated COVID-19 hospitals with limited services, there has been little, and often no, opportunity to transfer patients to private alternatives.
Adding to this complexity has been the limited availability of commercial flights; impacting the transfer of patients requiring transport to superior medical facilities or repatriation home. For COVID-19 positive patients, the only transfer option has involved specialized isolation pods on air ambulances. Meanwhile, lengthy compliance measures, including virus testing, have often been mandatory for all patients needing transfers.
Rising claims costs
The global rise in medical costs has long outpaced inflation, but COVID-19 has added to the financial pain. The pandemic has, for example, necessitated longer hospital stays for patients whose transfers have been held up by restrictions. It has also created an increased reliance on - more expensive - air ambulances. Combined with the added expense of business interruption, factors like these are increasing the cost of international accident and health claims.
The 2021 Global Medical Trends Survey Report by Willis Towers Watson acknowledges that many insurers are reporting a decreasing trend in claims this year, as most non-urgent medical treatments and surgeries have been delayed. But these delayed treatments, combined with the long-term (largely unknown) effects of COVID-19 suggest that a rapid escalation in claims lies ahead.
It's also important to remember that the availability of a vaccine is positive news, but that it calls for global motivation and the cooperation of communities worldwide to be truly effective. So, we're not out of the COVID-19 woods yet.
Opportunities in a post-COVID 19 world
That's not to say that there are no opportunities in the current climate - and one of these lies in digital development.
US healthcare providers lead the field in their adoption of digital technology; with almost 90% of US employees offered a telehealth benefit last year. COVID-19 is accelerating the wider use of telehealth around the world, which could well help to counteract medical cost inflation, whilst also providing an efficient, user-friendly way for policyholders to access medical triage services. And this could ease the pressure on potentially overstretched healthcare providers.
Digital tools can play an important part in intelligent underwriting too; for instance, by identifying individuals at risk of developing severe symptoms of COVID-19, or of any other serious illness. We’ve had a lot of interest in our own digital tool, Venture, which can assess these risks via online questionnaires completed by globally mobile employees. It can also correlate risks with the availability and standard of healthcare in specific destinations.
Digital risk assessment tools like this offer an opportunity to access aggregated and anonymised data on the health of employees overseas, which can inform underwriting decisions for international accident and health policies.
Meeting mental health needs
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that close to 1 billion people worldwide are already living with a mental disorder. And COVID-19 is swelling the numbers. It's no secret that the virus has added to the global mental health load; exacerbating anxiety, loneliness and depression.
But this presents an opportunity to better-fill the void in the provision of mental health coverage and servicing, with drivers from possible regulatory changes and increased employee need. And it’s worth bearing in mind that this need may become more acute as the global economy shrinks and corporates look increasingly to minimise business disruption and retain or improve productivity.
It’s likely that improving mental health coverage could benefit all parties. After all, the WHO estimates that, for every US$ 1 invested in scaled-up treatment for common mental disorders such as depression and anxiety, there is a return of US$ 5 in improved health and ability to work.
COVID-19 may have impacted the world - but collective determination and global cooperation will see us through it.