Fiona Murphy caught up with the company's Europe director Dominic Howard to discuss the service and other markets it would like to break into
Many of our readers will be familiar with Best Doctors, due to its role as a bolt-on for protection policies they have sold.
In a nutshell, it provides members of protection polices signed up to the service, with access to a second opinion on diagnosis, treatment from the world-leading specialists and expert advice on treatment and medical information, as well as other benefits.
Unsurprisingly given the strong connection with protection, its Europe director Dominic Howard previously worked across "the other side of the fence" for insurers and reinsurers, with roles at Jardine Lloyd Thomson, Lloyds Syndicate and Aon.
What we're looking to do is strengthen the patient-doctor relationship and it can be a really valuable and powerful tool for anyone using PMI
He was asked to set up Best Doctors' UK operations in 2006.
The service has been growing and building relationships with insurers since then. Take this year: in March, Friends Life launched Global Treatment with Best Doctors – an add-on to its protection policies offering policyholders the option of going abroad for serious illness treatment.
This is in addition to the fact Friends Life policies already provide Best Doctors' second opinion service to customers.
On Global Treatment, Howard said: "Sales of that have exceeded all expectations and it's been a terrific success. That is something that will bring new opportunities as well. We have an exclusive opportunity with them in terms of it being a life product – it's a perfect test case."
Best Doctors also has a long-standing relationship with Canada Life and others such as Generali and AIG Life. It also works with health cash plan providers Westfield Health and Medicash.
"We have built a strong reputation with quality insurers which we've serviced to a high standard. These are genuine partnerships, they are long-term and they have given us a very strong reputation."
Given the high-profile launch with Friends Life in recent months, where is Best Doctors looking to go next? Howard explained that he is looking at several new horizons, including the over-50s market.
"Not only are we seeing interest from a lot of clients in this area, but we are getting interest from companies who are not directly involved in protection but are interested in what is the fastest growing demographic in the UK.
"We have the services that can respond to things which will affect people in that higher age bracket: cancer, most critical illnesses and degenerative diseases, and orthopaedic conditions. We want to find a way to tap into that market."
Another market Howard is greatly interested in is general insurance, from motor to household and personal lines.
"If you look at what Best Doctors has done as a company, we have always thought about the commercial aspect of the service. In a competitive market (and motor insurance is about as competitive you can get), companies are always looking for an edge to improve services and improve customer retention.
"The main thing we need to do is make sure that the service is positioned in such a way that it resonates with the end customer. That should be a relatively easy thing to do. And the only thing that is stopping us at this point is we don't know anyone in that market."
I asked Howard how he would see his products and services working with motor insurance – would they be add-ons, too?
"We'd look at doing it in exactly the same way we do currently [with protection insurers] in that we would have our service as an embedded feature [with the policy].
"Take household [insurance]. You have a family of people – they may have health issues and will probably be spending a lot of time online, sometimes to look up health conditions. We use the word ‘cyberchondria' [to describe this].
"Something like 74% of people who have gone online will end up nervous, frustrated, unsure and will ask more questions than they have answers.
"If you think of having Best Doctors within a household as a lifestyle service, it makes a lot of sense. It's a question of can you plug it into a household product to make it resonate with the people that are purchasing that? If you pitch it at the right pricing level and aim at the larger companies in that area, it would make a lot of sense.
"With motor insurance, the market is very price-sensitive. They are looking for low-cost solutions that make a bit of a difference and that you can plug in easily.
"If you have a service that will respond to people that have been in a car crash – for example, who have had whiplash or some kind of trauma and where we can give advice on rehabilitation, pain management, orthopaedics – you have something that is very compelling."
Howard said these markets are "completely untapped areas" for Best Doctors and he also is mindful of the banking sector as being a good fit.
"Packaged accounts are under review and there is a debate as to whether banks will be able to sell packaged accounts. The likelihood is that individuals will have to make some kind of a choice. But the banks are under a lot of pressure to restore credibility among consumers. A service that is completely relevant to all ages and that they can plug in a very low cost, it seems to make a lot of sense."
Value for money?
Is there a role for a company such as Best Doctors given the insurance premium tax increase contained in the Summer Budget?
Private medical insurance (PMI) and general insurance premiums will be increasing and surely insurers will be looking at creating more value for policyholders with additional benefits on policies.
"With Best Doctors globally, if you look at the numbers, with lots of companies making a price increase, they wanted something that would act as a sweetener and make the increase more palatable for their customers.
"With PMI, we work with some big hospital cash plan companies, but not with any private medical insurers directly in the UK.
"There are two potential things there: the first is they are looking for ways to desperately maintain market share and PMI has been very flat for a long time; they are looking at making the market bigger and players within the market are looking to improve their market share.
"They are also looking to reduce costs. With the open referral debate, I can't see whether that has definitely worked or not, but it is limiting choice for consumers.
"How can they get the consumer feeling that the policy they are buying (where they are often not claiming but seeing premium increases year-on-year) gives them more value?
"There are very imaginative companies out there, but is that helping them to grow their businesses or maintain their businesses? What is the net result of all that?
"With Best Doctors, it has a track record of helping companies with increasing sales and retention. If you look at the business case within the US, with the bigger employers who self-insure their medical expenses, we help to reduce their direct medical costs.
"We are not even measuring the indirect costs, such as reducing absenteeism and helping an individual to return to work, or avoiding an unnecessary medical procedure.
"There is a value there not only for the individual, but for the company. It's about trying to give people the reassurance that they are doing the right thing.
"It's about taking away the confusion they get from going online and looking for health information and allowing them to have a more informed discussion with their own doctor and shed some light on an complex medical condition that might not have been looked at by the treating doctor.
"It's never our intention to replace that treating doctor or send that individual away. What we're looking to do is strengthen the patient-doctor relationship and it can be a really valuable and powerful tool for anyone using PMI."
A fitting policy
Howard said that the strength of the doctors, – the fact that you can have access to the best in the world for a second opinion – is another compelling fit for those with PMI.
"If you look at our database of doctors, it's the most comprehensive in the world and is peer-reviewed. If a lot of people need a second opinion, they go to a GP. Where will they send them for a second opinion? How will they have the knowledge to do that?
"I'm a big fan of the NHS, but it's still inconsistent and a bit of a lottery. Anyone can get a second opinion, but the second opinion is only as good as that doctor or nurse."
With Best Doctors' standards, all of the networks are peer-reviewed, but medical technologies and certain attitudes to medicine are different throughout the world. How do they ensure they have the very best people, I ask.
"We use doctors in different territories, including in the UK. The really good doctors speak at international forums and have a good idea of what's going on in the key territories.
"There are clinical trials and medical technologies doing things thousands of times a year in other countries, whereas here in the UK it might be ten times a year. The question we ask is which experts are most suitable for peoples' needs?"
A compelling message and with Howard's eye on new partners, it is definitely one that could launch Best Doctors into other markets.
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