App to the future for PMI tech

Are health apps and smart technology about to revolutionise the PMI market. It’s early days, but it could happen very soon says Sam Barrett

There’s an app for everything from organising your diary and tracking your expenses to turning yourself into a zombie in your photos. And, with smartphones and tablets the must-have gadgets, it’s hardly surprising that the health insurers are getting active in this space.  

All manner of apps are currently available, splitting broadly into two categories – information apps and customer service apps. On the information side are ones such as Bupa’s suite of health and fitness apps, while among the customer service apps available is Axa PPP healthcare’s MyHealth app, where customers can submit claims, preauthorise some procedures and search for approved hospitals and specialists.

Not quite yet?

But, while there’s plenty of choice, switched on advisers are far from overwhelmed by the insurers’ offerings. “We’re not quite there yet,” says Aon Employee Benefits head of health and risk Stephen Hackett. “At the moment there’s a touch of ‘so what’ with many of these apps.”

Certainly many of the information apps don’t really offer anything more than what a quick Google search would throw up. Sutton Winson healthcare executive Chris Hickey points to the apps developed by several of the insurers that allow customers to search for approved healthcare providers in their area. “It’s good that this is on your phone as it’s convenient but the insurers really need to introduce more interaction to engage their customers,” he says. “PruHealth is going in the right direction with its app, which allows members to track their Vitality points and book free cinema tickets, but the sector does lag behind others.”   

As an example he points to banking apps. While these used to be fairly clunky and offer little more functionality than requesting a printed statement from a cash machine, they now allow account holders to pay bills, transfer funds and even withdraw money without a cash card. 

Part of the problem for the health insurers lies with their approach to technology. Mercer head of corporate consulting Chris Bailey explains: “The trouble is they’re not IT developers with huge in-house teams to build innovative apps. We’re seeing them link up with some of the commercially available apps but this isn’t always successful.”

New appetite

Although insurers may still be experimenting with apps, there are signs that progress is starting to be made. ADVO Group commercial director Colin Boxall says Allianz Worldwide Care’s MyHealth, which was launched in August 2014, raises the bar.

In addition to the standard facility locators, medical information and drug names around the world, this includes an option to submit claims through the app. “Policyholders take a photo of their bill, complete a simple claim form and submit. They can also track their claims through the app. It’s the only insurer app I’ve seen that is really useful,” Boxall adds.

While the needs of international medical insurance policyholders may make it easier to identity the features that would create an app that supports them, UK customers are also set to benefit from the next generation of apps. These are currently under development, with both insurers and consultants hinting at launches in 2015.

Among those looking to shake up the medical insurance app market is Buck Consultants at Xerox, which is currently working on a fitness app, Fittle. This app sees users take part in challenges that, by pitching groups of employees against each other, encourages them to adopt new healthier lifestyle habits.

“It uses artificial intelligence to understand the user’s behaviours and then interacts with them in a way that is more likely to encourage change,” explains Buck Consultants at Xerox head of health and productivity Martyn Anwyl. “This type of gamification is increasingly being seen as a way to make actions and behaviours – including those connected with health and wellbeing – more fun and engaging.”

The use of gamification in health and wellbeing is already well-founded, with many organisations using walking and weight loss challenges where teams of employees compete to see who can walk the furthest or lose the most weight. Further, a 2013 study by Buck and WorldatWork found that 62 per cent of employers use one or more gamification elements to promote health engagement to employees, with 52 per cent considering adopting online and mobile games for this purpose in the next three years. 

Future approach

App development in the corporate health and wellbeing space is unlikely to stop there. Hackett believes the next big step will be apps that use sensors to collect health data. “Wearable technology can measure your pulse, blood pressure, blood sugar and so on to track key biometrics. It starts to get really interesting when you consider the insight this data will give to both employees and employers. It’s a bit of a healthcare revolution.”

These sensors are already available in devices such as Fitbit and Jawbone and, while still relatively cutting edge, growth forecasts for this type of technology suggest the revolution isn’t that far off. According to IHS Technology the use of environmental and health sensors within mobile phones is set to grow significantly over the next few years with global revenue for these sensors leaping from less than $2m in 2012 to nearly $400m by 2017. 

And the opportunities these sensors present for innovation can be seen in a prototype device announced earlier this year by Google. By fitting a contact lens with a microscopic computer chip, sensor and antenna, it is able to monitor glucose levels in the wearer’s tears, alerting them when the levels are too high or too low. As readings can be taken every second and be linked to a patch that delivers insulin, this would enable diabetes to better manage their condition.   

While still relatively sci-fi, in the corporate healthcare arena, being able to keep tabs on health data will lead to greater interaction. “An app will be able to alert users to changes that might be a sign of an underlying health problem,” says Hickey. “For instance if someone’s blood pressure started to creep up they could recommend lifestyle changes to control it with the wearer able to see the effect these had on their health.”  

Sci-fi appointments

As well as health screening opportunities, these sensors could also change the way some healthcare is delivered. For example, Bailey says that, being able to tap into these readings makes the concept of virtual GPs even more compelling. “If the GP has all the diagnostics, it would be relatively easy to have an appointment with them by video link. It’s much more convenient than sitting in a GP’s waiting room and would work especially well for international medical insurance customers who would be able to receive continuity of GP services.”

The potential for technology turning the delivery of employee healthcare into a much slicker process can be pushed even further. After seeing the virtual GP, any prescribed drugs could be produced through 3D printing, enabling doctors to tailor medicine and ensuring an employee has access to the necessary treatment wherever they are in the world.

Influence on the future design of apps could also come from other countries. For instance, in the US, one company, Castlight Health, has helped to drive down the cost of procedures by using technology to create greater transparency around healthcare. As well as publishing the prices paid for treatment by its members it also encourages them to review the service they received so others can make more informed choices when they need treatment.

But while technology could potentially change employers’ healthcare strategies, Hackett believes a much more basic human need will determine what works in the future. “If you really want these apps to reach out beyond the group of employees who are already fit and healthy, you need to offer some sort of reward,” he say. “Get this right and it really starts to get interesting.”    

Apps for health insurance

These are some of the apps available from the health insurers.

Aviva My Stress Kit – Based around a quiz to identify what pressures affect you most, this app provides tips to help you relax and deal with stress as well as trackers to help you understand how different situations affect your stress levels.

Bupa Fitness – This app provides fitness programmes to help you improve your flexibility, core stability, balance and strength. The programme starts with an assessment before devising a personalised programme that suits your fitness level. It also allows you to monitor your fitness levels to chart improvements. 

PruHealth Walk The Tube – A pedometer based app that allows you to plan your journey by foot rather than tube. As well as recording details of the distance, time, calories burnt and steps taken, it also provides details of any tube disruptions to encourage you to take to your feet.

Simplyhealth Back Care – Information and advice to help you manage and prevent back pain. It includes videos of exercises, a pain diary and a director of practitioners including physiotherapists, chiropractors and acupuncturists.

Westfield Health – This app allows members to check how much benefit they have left and when the levels will renew. It also shows recent claims history.