In healthcare, you are what you wear

Iain McMillan

Technology and data are putting people in control of their health and well-being like never before, says Iain McMillan director of distribution at Bupa. Reflecting on over 20 years’ experience in the industry, he shares his views on how health insurance clients and intermediaries are benefiting and how their needs are a driver for change.

Change can be stressful, especially when it happens over a short space of time as it did during the pandemic. It takes time for people to adapt. 

The changes to people’s workplace and work-life balance were exacerbated by the ensuing business and labour market uncertainty, as well as difficulties accessing healthcare. 

This combination has been the driving force behind increasing conversations with our clients and intermediaries about employee health and well-being.

Google searches for health insurance have increased by 56% between 2021 and 2022.1 

And our Bupa UK Wellbeing Index2 found that a third of employees (33%) believe their employers have a responsibility to support their health and well-being.

More than half (53%) say they are more likely to choose to work for an organisation which offers good health and well-being benefits. 

This is backed up by research from the global professional services firm, Aon, which found a much greater focus on mental well-being, with the number of employers who think their teams expect more support for mental health leaping by 44% in a year to 82%.3

And data from the Bupa UK Wellbeing Index confirms significant need, and demand, for this sort of support, with a third (33%) of those with employer-provided health and well-being benefits reporting they had used some kind of mental health support service in the previous 12 months.

With people increasingly looking to their employer for health and well-being support, employers are focusing on ways to make healthcare more equitable and give employees the same access regardless of where they work. This is fuelling demand for more innovative healthcare provision. 


Wearable devices

Technology is empowering people to take control of their health, as well as changing the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of illnesses. 

Wearable devices that unobtrusively track, analyse and transmit personal biometric data, such as heart rate and sleep patterns, are already popular consumer electronics. 

Some insurers are using them to incentivise customers to adopt healthier lifestyles. In return, the data collected gives a more accurate continuous view of the customers’ health than the usual metrics, such as age, and it better informs pricing.

However, some of the biggest benefits lie in their medical application as well as their capacity for behaviour change. Doctors can reference data collected by these devices in real time to speed up a diagnosis or better inform treatment. 

For example, continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) systems are already giving people with diabetes more accurate and efficient blood sugar monitoring.

Promising future

The future for wearable technology looks very promising. Firms are looking at ways to implant devices underneath the skin to test blood oxygen levels, track prescription drugs and monitor other vital signs, which would be very beneficial for patients with chronic illnesses.

Another of the technologies with great remote diagnostic potential is smartphones, with their in-built capabilities such as cameras, touchscreens, networking, computation, 3D sensing, audio and motion. 

Alongside wearable devices, these capabilities will bring elements of the doctor’s office much closer to the patient.

At Bupa, we work with Skin Analytics to offer our customers a faster diagnosis when they have a concerning skin symptom. 

Skin Analytics posts them a kit which includes a smartphone and a dermoscopic lens to take high-resolution photos of moles or lesions. Once the customer uploads the photos to the app on the phone, they will then be assessed by a dermatologist alongside the customer’s medical history. 

If there’s nothing to worry about, the customer will receive a report and have peace of mind within 24 hours, much faster than the usual time to arrange a face-to-face appointment. 

If further investigation is needed, Bupa contacts the customer to discuss next steps and helps arrange a referral to a specialist.

Less disruption

The customer benefits of wearable and other technologies are that important health data can be gathered conveniently with less disruption to day-to-day life, offering greater satisfaction as they provide opportunities to spend less time in a clinical setting. 

For insurers, their corporate clients, and doctors, there is the potential to help reduce the costs associated with traditional healthcare facilities, to improve care pathways, and accelerate diagnosis and treatment.

In the corporate sphere, the future of workplace well-being could be driven by data collected from smartphones and wearables to improve employees’ physical health and support their energy levels and mood management. 

And it offers greater opportunity for pro-activity and early intervention to keep employees healthy, mentally and physically. Our clients recognise that technology is playing an essential role in driving innovation through healthcare.

Precision medicine

Increasingly, our clients and intermediaries are looking to give their employees and clients faster access to the right care that is personalised to them.

Precision medicine is allowing patients to receive more accurate individualised diagnoses faster, with less treatment trial and error. 

Doctors more frequently have access to the genetic information of an individual, their personal health risks and how any treatment might affect both person and disease.

While the idea of precision medicine is not new, the use of genetic or other biomarker information to make treatment decisions about patients is ever growing. 

Biomarker testing is already commonly used in cancer treatment, for example. Bupa covers an ever-increasing range of diagnostic and prognostic services that enable our customers to receive the best care possible based on their individual needs. 

Although potentially expensive in the short term, precision medicine offers the opportunity to reduce waste in the longer term through the avoidance of incorrect or inappropriate treatments, particularly in the field of oncology, where new treatments are increasingly expensive. 

For corporate clients facing rising business costs themselves, it’s imperative that they keep healthcare costs down. Precision medicine offers them the opportunity to achieve best value, as well as best outcomes, for their employees.

Health data

One of the most valuable sources of information we have at our fingertips is the health data gathered from wearables, digital health apps, home monitoring devices, lab tests, claims data and health records. 

Analysing this data and looking for patterns allows us to make healthcare more patient-centred and pro-active, with the potential to improve health and well-being. 

Last year, GE Healthcare signed a ten-year partnership agreement with Circle Health Group to allow Circle’s clinicians to make faster, more targeted and more informed decisions in the diagnosis, treatment and monitoring of patients. 

This will be achieved through intelligent devices, data analytics, applications and services with the aim of improving patient outcomes across the company’s UK-wide network of hospitals.

As well as providing insight to clinicians, data can provide a valuable health check for businesses enabling them to better support their employees’ health and wellbeing. 

This is key in a world where one in five of those surveyed as part of the Bupa UK Wellbeing Index said they have already changed jobs to secure better benefits.

Better benefits

At Bupa Health Clinics, we have reshaped our health assessments to drive positive change for businesses and employees. We have introduced home-based assessments to account for the increase in home working. 

And we use behavioural science to promote health improvement, resulting in 92% of customers improving their lifestyle following their assessment. 

We also introduced new technology, including an app, to provide year-round digital engagement. These developments resulted in improved data to help drive employers’ well-being strategies.

It is clear that technology, and the infrastructure that supports it, is integral to provide healthcare that is fit for the present day. Healthcare that is pro-active not reactive and preventive rather than curative. 

This will not only help to reduce spiralling costs, but it is being demanded by consumers who are used to convenience and personalisation. Bupa is already facing into this future in many ways.

1. Google Weekly Industry Trends Report – Finance, Health Insurance (Generics) section, 29 October 2021.
2. Bupa commissioned Censuswide to poll a nationally representative sample of 8,001 UK adults. The data was collected between 29/07/2022 and 09/08/2022. 
3. UK employers seeing significant changes in what employees expect at work: Aon Benefits and Trends Survey 2022, Aon, 2022.