Nick Martindale highlights the healthcare products which have seen most success over 2017, and what the outlook is for 2018.

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For a market that essentially revolves around ensuring workers remain fit and healthy, the health and wellbeing space is one that sees a significant amount of innovation and change, as employers and providers attempt to keep up to speed with new trends and better understand the impact of having sick or underperforming employees.


One trend which has dominated the landscape in 2017 is the push towards wellness rather than healthcare, with a greater emphasis on ensuring people do not become ill in the first place. “Employers are beginning to understand the relationship between employee health and business productivity and profitability,” says Luke Prankard, practice lead, health and wellbeing, at Thomsons Online Benefits. “As a result, they are searching for support from providers in encouraging healthy lifestyle decisions among their workforce, well before an employee even needs to claim.”

This is resulting in a greater use of “wellness pots”, designed to fit in with employees’ own personal requirements. “These enable employees to choose how they spend a wellness allowance from their employer, for example to fund yoga classes, mindfulness programmes or even drumming lessons,” he adds. “Our latest Employee Benefits Watch Research shows that those employers already offering wellness pots see an average 23% uplift in engagement rates.”

This focus on prevention means employers are now willing to invest in products that will improve the overall health and fitness of their staff, says Martin Richardson, head of sales partnerships at The Health Insurance Group. “Early adopters are increasingly attracted to providers whose healthcare plans include engagement tools designed to get people moving more, which can help reduce obesity rates and so help reduce the long-term incidence of conditions such as diabetes,” he says. This kind of approach is common in the corporate sector, he adds, but less so among smaller firms.


Health screenings, designed to identify any potential medical conditions or areas for improvement, are also becoming more prominent, particularly away from their traditional market of senior employees. Here, too, there is a trend towards personalisation, says Peter Blencowe, managing director of Bluecrest Wellness.

“The standard offering of health screenings still tends to be designed to suit the old idea of senior staff, so men in their 50s who are concerned about the health of their heart and level of fitness,” he says. “That’s not much good for women in their 20s thinking about pregnancy, or with worries about the serious risks from ovarian, breast and cervical cancer. Similarly, employees from different ethnic backgrounds will have specific risk factors for their health.”

Tailoring products to meet specific requirements of types of employee is also filtering through into the wider insurance market. Embryocare, for instance, has built its entire business around offering insurance for staff who are expecting a baby, offering a lump sum and practical and emotional support to help with a range of conditions that can affect newborn children. Cover lasts from 20 weeks to two years of age.


As part of the wider emphasis of prevention rather than cure, there is a growing focus on mental health. The products themselves are often well established, says Beth Robotham, head of business development at Bupa UK, but these are now often being delivered over the internet. “Online counselling tools such as cognitive behavioural therapy are now available as part of health insurance or employee assistance programmes,” she says. “A more proactive approach is providing access to online health assessment tools with ongoing education modules to help employees address wellbeing concerns before they escalate.” The use of wearable technology is also helping employees to be more proactive about their health, she adds.

Initiatives to tackle stress are also starting to extend into supporting employees with responsibility for looking after elderly people. Research by Simplyhealth suggests this is already affecting a small proportion of the workforce and is expected to worsen over the next 10 years. “Of those who work and care, 76% were distracted from daily tasks and 60% worry their caring is harming their current employment status,” says Raman Sankaran, who heads up Simplyhealth’s new online service called Care for Life, which provides a range of support and practical information designed to help employees cope with caring, and the pressure that comes from this.

When patients do become ill, there is a strong emphasis on early intervention, often bypassing GPs and the NHS initially. “Insurance companies are now offering early invention such as triage over the phone so that employees don’t have to wait to see GPs,” says Richardson. “Employers recognise that their staff can struggle to arrange GP appointments and some have introduced virtual GP surgeries with access to tele-doctors or online, which saves employees taking time off work for a basic GP consultation.”

Babylon is one example of this, says Laura Matthews, a workplace health consultant at Barnett Waddingham, which recently develop a “digital twin” online service to help businesses support their employees in managing and diagnosing physical health symptoms. “Babylon has medically programmed this digital twin to be educated up to nurse practitioner level currently in order to diagnose minor medical aliments, fully supported by a team of doctors within their IT programming team,” she says.


DocTap, meanwhile, offers a pay-as-you-go service for employers, where employees in the London area can access face-to-face appointments as and when required. “Employers are starting to look for affordable alternatives to health insurance schemes and annual wellness checks, which are expensive to provide but in most cases provide no tangible benefit to the employee,” says Dan Faber, co-founder at DocTap. The service is particularly aimed at smaller firms, he adds. 

The different components of the healthcare market and tools open to employers are also undergoing change. Barnett Waddingham’s 2017 Workplace Wellbeing Index found there was a rise in demand for private medical schemes in 2015, but also discovered evidence that higher costs, partly on the back of the increase in insurance premium tax, could see this fall back.

“The survey found that 36% of employers predict that premiums will increase, 19% will cease to offer the benefit and the same percentage will seek to restrict access to employees only, so no dependants,” says Kevin O’Neil, head of workplace health at Barnett Waddingham. “A further 17% will seek to implement other health-related benefits to take over some of the benefits of PMI.”

Cash plans are one product which could help to make up any gaps in cover as a result of scaling back PMI policies, and it seems these have also found favour with employees. According to the Willis Towers Watson Employee Benefits Barometer, which largely focuses on small firms, cash plans were ranked ahead of both health and life insurance in employee popularity. “Twelve per cent of respondents voted cash plans as their top benefit, a figured bettered only by pension schemes,” says Mike Blake, director at Willis Towers Watson Health & Benefits.

Cash plans themselves are evolving, too, in line with wider trends in the market, complementing traditional benefits such as dental, optical and physiotherapy. “Some of the relatively new benefits being offered include workplace health screening, physio triage and cancer screening which complement other recent innovations such as virtual GP surgery, 24/7 counselling and support helplines, online health portals and home assistance cover,” says Courtney Marsh, commercial director at Health Shield.


Kevin Rogers, chief executive of Paycare, also points to a trend to offer access to discounts on leisure and other non-health related products, as it has done through its Paycare Perks service. “It’s designed to provide individuals with access to a suite of discounts and exclusive deals on everything from family holidays and mini-breaks to cinema tickets and leisure memberships,” he says.

This is also a trend that other providers such as insurance firms are replicating. “Many providers are enhancing plans with non-healthcare benefits such as a shopping and retail discount and reward portal to drive employee engagement,” says Richardson. “There is a rationale behind such initiatives, as financial wellbeing is increasingly recognised as a key element of broader wellbeing, so in an era of ongoing wage constraint there is an obvious appeal in helping employees make their money go further.”

Looking ahead to next year, it’s likely that apps will also play a bigger role in helping workers to engage with health initiatives, believes Blake. “When looking to engage with staff, it is important to consider how they prefer to consume information,” he says. “Apps will play a key role in helping to drive greater engagement, encouraging workers to give greater thought to how they use available benefits and what measures they could take to boost overall health.”

There’s also likely to be a greater emphasis from employers on value and a return on investment from any health or wellbeing initiative, believes Prankard, with data playing an important role. “Organisations must take a more joined-up, strategic approach to wellbeing, using data to identify problem trends, establish a business case and then track progress,” he says. “Benefits and wellbeing schemes should be targeted towards the areas of greatest need.”