Insurance in Covid times: how telemedicine could help save lives

Thursday, June 25, 2020

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The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the way many people access medical services. Fears over catching the virus in hospital waiting rooms and doctors’ surgeries, combined with restrictions on travel, mean telemedicine- or remote medical consultations- are increasingly popular. Using existing technology and common devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops, web-based medical consultations can result in faster diagnoses and treatments, increase the efficiency of care, and reduce patient stress. But, is telemedicine all good news for health insurers and their clients?

Existing initiatives using telemedicine were scrutinised in the latest Spanish-language Expert Forum organised by the Microinsurance Network (MiN). The participants discussed the added value of telemedicine to customers, its pros and cons, and how inclusive insurance can be used to boost resilience in the health sector.

Inspowering, an initiative led by long-standing MiN member Andrea Camargo, has been aspiring to reduce the insurance protection gap to build resilience, by advising both policymakers and providers. Camargo, who moderated the MiN Expert Forum, claimed telemedicine has gained importance in the current crisis because lockdown restrictions create the need for remote tools. Tele-medical consultations are essential to care for people with symptoms of coronavirus, and to provide continuity in the provision of medical services.

“When it comes to inclusive insurance, telemedicine can help close the gap in health systems for vulnerable populations, where the quality or access to this type of service is often insufficient,” Camargo added.

Moreover, inadequate healthcare systems are all too common across Latin America, with high costs, low coverage, limited medical supplies and system overload. “However, these conditions offer an opportunity for telemedicine services,” said Xavier Ruiz, Marketing and Communications Manager at Inmedical in Ecuador.

Expanding on this, he explained that the use of digital tools can boost health service coverage in vulnerable segments, as technology can reduce operating costs, eliminate geographic barriers, reduce crowding and increase the availability of medical specialists.

There is indeed an opportunity to expand telemedicine services in a post-Covid world. Salvador da Cunha, CEO of Affinity Marketing International in the Dominican Republic believes there is growing potential in Latin America for telemedicine, due to the high volume and demand of patients in need of efficient remote care services. “64 percent of patients in the region say they are willing to buy this type of service, 76 percent say they are more concerned about having fast medical care rather than face-to-face care, and 74 percent say they are comfortable using this type of technology,” da Cunha enumerated.

In addition, telemedicine can help ease congestion in medical facilities since most medical consultations could take place remotely. It is worth considering an entire digital ecosystem of complementary health services including electronic prescriptions, interpretation of lab results, ambulances, insurance, and dentistry.

AXA Emerging Customers shared the vision of telemedicine becoming the future and enriched the discussion with insights from the insurers’ perspective. Remote consultations help reduce economic stress for the most vulnerable clients, and telemedicine offers a solution which both promotes access to health services and enables insurers to give their customers better support.

“Insurers can go beyond simply covering medical expenses to promoting a culture of prevention. That would bring positive effects for both the industry and the insured. And, remote consultations could encourage patients to ask questions that may be considered taboo,” Laura Elena Rosado, Strategy and Finance Manager of AXA Emerging Customers, said.

Nevertheless, there are potential downsides to telemedicine which insurers, regulators and clients need to be aware of. While technology can be an enabler for delivering health services, for some vulnerable populations- especially those without access to the internet or smartphones, it can also be a barrier. The importance of adapting products and services to the specific needs of each market segment in order to make them accessible and inclusive should be a huge point of emphasis. For instance, telemedicine services must be able to offer solutions even to the unbanked population.

Technological limitations may even extend to the medical personnel, who in some cases may resist remote technology. “There is also the challenge that both clients and industry associations are still reluctant to migrate face-to-face services to digital platforms” explained da Cunha.  

Inevitably, telemedicine does not offer a universal one-size-fits-all solution. In some medical consultations, human contact is essential and unavoidable, i.e. physical examination. Other challenges for the insurance industry include establishing strategic alliances with healthcare professionals and providers to ensure quality of service and protect insurers’ reputation.

Despite the potential barriers to uptake, Ruiz remained optimistic that the current crisis, combined with greater education, awareness, and better access to digital technology would result in increased use of telemedicine, adding that “we need to be even better than face-to-face in terms of quality, scope and effectiveness of service”.

The ball is in the insurers’ court to incorporate telemedicine services into products in order to improve emerging consumers’ quality of life and achieve greater social impact. “Using microinsurance distribution channels, it should be possible to scale up these products at costs that are accessible to the most vulnerable people,” da Cunha claimed.

As telemedicine grows in popularity, it is up to insurance providers to take an active role, or risk missing out on this opportunity to other players. As Rosado summed up, “insurance companies should establish strategic alliances to reduce uncertainty and focus on added value and continuous improvement of their products.”