Amid the disruption of the pandemic, the onus is on insurers to develop more enhanced and intuitive cover options with greater focus on prevention – especially when it comes to dental, audio and optical care.
Covid-19 has had many impacts - some more obvious than others. But aside from the economy and its immediate health consequences, there are a whole range of more subtle - but still serious - repercussions on the horizon for individuals, businesses and those advising them.
A key concern is the enormous backlog of hidden health ailments threatening to affect hundreds of thousands in the UK. Among these are dental, optical and hearing issues that have gone untreated while Covid has clogged up the NHS and put health insurance providers on high alert. During the summer, there were a total of 227,750 patients on the waiting list for oral surgery, including 21,461 who had already been waiting more than a year, according to NHS England.
According to Ed Watling, senior employee benefits consultant at Mattioli Woods, the backlog created by the pandemic is "alarming". He believes that while dental treatment has become the element that stands out as the "must do" item, it's important to remember that "opticians also closed for a long time and the capacity was reduced for an increased time afterwards, during a time in which screen-time usage increased across the country".
A recent survey by the Faculty of Dental Surgeons revealed that almost four in 10 (39%) dental surgeons believe the backlog of care caused by the coronavirus pandemic will take at least a year to clear, while 19% say it will take more than two years to get through the volume of patients waiting for treatment.
"Many people may not always have the time or focus to pay the right level of attention to their eyes, ears, and teeth, and may not follow professional advice on regular check-ups and preventative care," says Dr Ali Hasan, chief medical and healthcare officer for Vitality. "This was an issue prior to the pandemic, but it has been exacerbated by the events of the past year and a half due to services becoming temporarily unavailable during lockdown and reluctance from people to visit practitioners around fears of Covid-19 infection."
As people return to work and with long waiting lists set to continue, the resulting NHS backlog is being firmly felt within the private medical insurance (PMI) sector. "We have seen a massive demand increase for ear, eye and teeth solutions," says Paul Roberts, senior consultant at IHC.
"Providers have taken steps to reassure customers that they are Covid-safe and to market this visibly which is also supporting growth," adds Dr Hasan.
With a greater focus now on prevention, the pandemic is driving opportunity for insurers to develop more enhanced and intuitive cover options. "It has created unusual demand from employees due to treatment delays and reduced supply from opticians and dentists who had to restrict the customers they can serve," Roberts explains. "Employers are in a unique position to improve wellbeing and add value to the employee proposition, making them employers of choice."
Ed Watling agrees that the widespread adoption of new working habits will lead to significant changes in customer demand and provider behaviour. "Health and wellbeing is becoming a key focus in the workplace," he says. "Employees now expect employers to provide access to health and wellbeing benefits and this trend is likely to increase. Obviously, budgets can sometimes be an issue but I fully expect growth in this area.
"With the development of remote access to benefits over the last 18 months we have seen increased engagement with services, as well as growing awareness and better education via apps and so on," he says. "This in turn makes it easier for benefits to be used, with appointments booked remotely, either from home or office."
While this also represents a big opportunity for intermediaries, it does present a challenge when it comes to engaging employers in way that encourages them to meet growing demand among staff. "Brokers need to discuss the uptick in demand with clients so that they are fully aware of the solutions that are available to employees," says Roberts.
Meanwhile, Watling believes getting communication right is vital. "The broker's role should be to highlight benefits and explain how to use them in ways that members can understand," he says.
Refresh and enhance
More reactive providers in the PMI space are looking to deliver more rounded, enhanced cover packages to increase access to dental, audio and optical care.
Vitality, for instance, has enhanced its offering to combine three benefits into a single, high-value cover option designed to help clients meet some of their most common healthcare costs - from routine check-ups and preventative care, to dental procedures and prescription glasses. Not only that, but Vitality plans also contribute towards other significant needs, such as hearing aids and restoring appearance after a dental accident.
Under the terms of the plan, clients' get up to £100 for preventative dental care each plan year, including check-ups and hygienists' fees, as well as up to £400 for treatments like fillings, crowns and dentures, while Vitality also promises to cover up to £2,500 of costs resulting from a dental accident - up to two claims per plan year.
Clients get £300 to cover the cost of hearing tests and to contribute to new listening aids if they get a new prescription. They also qualify for up to £500 for an eye test, and a new pair of glasses or a years' supply of contact lenses, delivered through Vitality's optical partner Vision Express - or the option of up to £300 if they go through any other accredited optician.
Delivering such services, in a joined-up way, helps ensure employees and individuals can get easy access to care via intermediaries. As Roberts reflects, "making sure that people know how to access the right services and get a diagnosis is now top priority."
For advisers, this creates an opportunity to talk to clients about customer outcomes and explain exactly what's on offer in a package. "There probably needs to be more focus on what these benefits actually deliver," says Watling, who argues dental cover, for example, offers strong return on investment (ROI) for employers in terms of reduced time-off and the vital role of prevention at this time.
This too is at the heart of Vitality's newly enhanced offering. While getting access to the right treatment is vital, a more proactive approach to prevention will lead to more sustainable, long-term dental, audio and optical care. Something reinforced by Vitality's promise to reimburse 100% of the costs of preventative dental treatment and eyesight tests (up to the cover limit) as well as providing cover for everyday expenses, such as dental procedures and prescription eyewear.
Hence, with prevention in the spotlight like never before and a renewed focus on health and wellbeing, it's clear that stronger connections between changing lifestyle patterns and how health impacts our performance will be one of Covid's many legacies. With innovation in this space already happening, there is plenty on offer for intermediaries to take advantage of.
Watch the video below to hear from Vitality medical director Dr Harpreet Sarna about the importance of preventative dentistry in the latest episode of Clinically Speaking.
 Forbes, Covid-19 pushes up internet use 70%, Mark Beech 2020
 Faculty of Dental Surgery, Royal College of Surgeons of England, August 2021
 BBC, NHS waits: More people feeling forced into private healthcare, September 2021