Subject access requests might seem a panacea to an industry inundated with GP reports. But there are side-effects for everyone in the chain, writes Chris Pollard.
From a provider’s perspective, without high levels of automation the case becomes more costly to process and the case will remain in a ‘pipeline’ state, awaiting the arrival of the customer’s consent.
Advisers with a face-to-face business model will not find that the collection of the declaration and signature presents too many problems. Collecting this all of the time, just in case it is needed, will minimise costs and delays.
For businesses that serve their customers on a remote basis, obtaining a signature is more problematic and will incur additional costs and delays.
So, would an SAR remove or reduce any consent issues? For the provider, the cost of obtaining consent will be the same, if not greater, because the provider should ensure that both the adviser and customer understand the implications of making an SAR.
One could argue it might also be appropriate to explain why they are acting outside of an agreed code of practice between the ABI and the BMA that was introduced to ensure providers receive only information that is needed.
For the adviser, consent is still required. Even if the provider takes responsibility to communicate clearly the implications of an SAR directly to the customer, the adviser should fully understand the implications this approach might have on their relationship with their client.
From the customer’s perspective, although they may understand data protection in general, they may feel confused and unsure about why it is necessary for a provider to receive their entire medical records.
They might also feel this is odd, given that they were asked clear, specific, time-bound questions on the application form. Without getting a full, transparent explanation, they could end up feeling disengaged with the process.
THE 40-DAY BENEFIT
With an ongoing focus in our industry on efficiency and productivity, reducing delays should be in everyone’s interest. An SAR must be completed within 40 days.
This is a benefit, as about 20% of Friends Life GP report requests received in January took longer than 40 days from request to receipt.
But to put this in a different context, this 20% represented only 3% of our customers. Hence SARs would benefit 3% of our customers when focusing solely on the 40-day return requirement.
Implementing an approach as radical as an SAR to replace the GP report for the benefit of 3% of customers does not create a compelling argument. Indeed, for every surgery that might be particularly tardy at returning reports promptly, there are many more who return them swiftly (nearly a third are returned within three weeks).
A surgery faced with the task of painstakingly redacting third-party references (to comply with data protection), copying a patient’s entire medical record, then posting the package faces a considerable administrative burden.
There could be improvements for an underwriter who, armed with an entire medical history, will not write to the doctor for missing information. This will be a positive development, but it happens only in the minority of cases.
A lack of availability of appropriate resources is generally the root cause of most delays and the impact that an SAR request will have on an entire process needs to be considered.
An SAR requested on a clean application for a 40-year-old will contain their entire medical history and probably fill the average shoe box. If the request was made due to a number of past or existing medical conditions, the provider may well receive several shoe boxes.
Most providers will scan incoming post that is then uploaded onto workflow systems and delivered to the underwriter’s screen. This part of the operation will need to invest in more staff, more machines and more system memory to cope with the change from a few pages to a box-load of paperwork.
Further investment will be needed in underwriting resources. Just 30 SAR requests are likely to keep a team of underwriters busy for most of the day, whereas one underwriter today could comfortably process 30 ‘normal’ medical reports in the same timeframe.
One might also feel the propensity to miss something crucial while looking for the wood in the trees will be greater. A risk of little materiality on either the customer or the adviser, but one a provider will be keen to reduce.
PAYING THE PRICE
Perhaps offsetting these problems is the fact that the maximum charge that can be made for an SAR is £50. However, where the request is from the insurance company, the cost of delivery (which should be recorded for obvious reasons) will drive the price higher.
Despite the ABI/BMI agreement coming to an end, most GP reports will be provided at a cost of between £90 and £100, while the questionnaire and specific letters will be between £20 and £50.
So, while there would be a reduction in the medical fees expense, this is likely to be outweighed by extra costs. In addition, if the provider is slow to invest or recognise the need to make these investments, the service delivered to customers and advisers will be affected.
An adviser may decide to propose to more than one provider due to their client’s health to secure the best terms. There are limitations on the frequency with which a person can exercise an SAR, so advisers might find unwelcome complexities arise while trying to do the best for their customer.
Data protection legislation was not designed to help providers overcome challenges they might face in obtaining medical information from their customers’ doctors. As an industry, we rely on the medical profession and, as such, our approach should be one based on partnership. Our core purposes might be subtly different.
But fundamentally providers, advisers, and the medical profession should have the same interest at heart: to protect the interests of their customers. Effective collaboration will deliver a more effective and sustainable solution long-term that benefits our industry. To that end, we should leave the ABI to resume discussions with the BMA.
For now, we should seek individual and tailored solutions that resolve the individual problems which arise for the minority of cases where delays in getting medical information are causing difficulties.
Chris Pollard is head of operations at Friends Life Individual Protection