The problem of noncommunicable disease (NCD) – also referred to as diseases of lifestyle – is reaching gargantuan proportions in the UK and across the globe. Tackling this issue requires new thinking to help achieve an engaged and health literate population.
We’re not talking here about the kind of generic, anxiety-inducing information on the internet that has led to the rise of the so-called ‘cyberchondriacs’1; rather a more personalised approach – one that connects wellbeing and care and supports us to live as long, as well, and as healthy as we can.
Virtual GP services offer a pivotal role here, around which all other key aspects of an integrated health and wellness system could and, arguably should, revolve - namely wearable technology, private medical cover and even financial wellbeing: income protection (IP), support and counselling services.
Why here? Why now?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports2 that NCDs are responsible for 71% of all deaths globally. Cardiovascular disease is the main culprit, followed by cancers, respiratory diseases and diabetes – this figure is significantly greater in first world countries such as the UK where NCDs were estimated to account for 89% of total deaths.
This huge issue is partly due to better detection but mainly because of ‘genuine’ rises, driven by poor lifestyle behaviours and in part by an ageing population. The leading risk factors include tobacco, followed by high blood pressure, being overweight, a poor diet, insufficient physical activity and alcohol use. According to NHS statistics4, 1 in 4 adults and 1 in 5 children of secondary school age in the UK are classed as obese. Meanwhile, a fifth of men and a quarter of women are officially ‘inactive’.
Add to that behavioural risk factors and underlying influencers that drive them such as housing, employment, income and environment, and it becomes abundantly clear that NCDs are complex problems that require totally new thinking. The physical, mental and financial are interrelated and should be supported as such.
Internationally, the focus is on the need to create health-promoting environments, as well as taking specific actions on known risk factors.
The impact on financial advice
All of this brings new challenges and opportunities for intermediaries in terms of taking a broader, more holistic, approach to individual health and wellbeing.
Wellbeing, diagnostics and care services may now be combined to help empower people to develop and maintain independent, healthy and active lives.
Thanks to digital technology, the GP is now able to act as both the entry point to the healthcare system and lifestyle health coach, delivering healthcare more efficiently and addressing the imbalance between treatment and prevention.
Stuart Scullion, Executive Chairman of The Association of Medical Insurers & Intermediaries (AMII), says the last decade has seen a transition in the PMI arena from simply treating acute medical conditions to managing wellness and treating illness.
“Digital health solutions are key to managing wellness, providing a wide range of health information on various topics through online portals and mobile devices. Developments in Artificial Intelligence are advancing at a pace, which will only see this type of digital healthcare provision grow.
“Virtual GPs and access to virtual GP services have an important part to play in encouraging that wellness revolution as well as remaining a conduit to accessing private health treatment for acute medical conditions. They enable today’s consumer to address their medical needs on the move at a time and place to suit them.
“They are no longer just a solution to difficulties in accessing an NHS GP at the point of need.”
Brian Walters, Principal of Cheltenham-based health insurance brokers Regency Health, adds that virtual GP services are a good fit for the PMI market.
“The key selling point of PMI is to facilitate prompt access to diagnosis and treatment, but a GP referral is usually required. With waiting times to see a GP on the rise, the value of PMI can be undermined, and it wouldn't surprise me to see all medical insurers offer a virtual GP service as standard before too long.
“Traditional PMI customers, i.e. those over 55, can be resistant to this sort of technology, but it doesn't take a great deal of imagination to foresee a time where most GP consultations are virtual.”
1 Cyberchondria: Studies of the escalation of medical concerns in Web search, White & Horvitz, Journal: ACM Transactions on Information Systems (Nov 2009) https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?doid=1629096.1629101
2 Noncommunicable diseases, World Health Organisation (June 2018) http://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/noncommunicable-diseases
3 Noncommunicable disease country profiles 2014, World Health Organisation http://www.who.int/nmh/countries/gbr_en.pdf
4 Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet – England 2018, NHS Digital (April 2018) https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/statistics-on-obesity-physical-activity-and-diet/statistics-on-obesity-physical-activity-and-diet-england-2018
5 Term and Health Watch, Swiss Re (May 2018) http://www.swissre.com/locations/swiss_re_uk_publications_for_the_uk_life__health_market.html