Underwriters urged to step up to the plate on health

Insurers have been told they need to do more to support their clients when it comes to health and lifestyle in the year ahead.

Swiss Re’s Global Chief Medical Officer Dr John Schoonbee, said insurers should be creating their own set of New Year’s resolutions, with businesses also looking at key areas they should be considering for the year ahead.

The reinsurer said it had analysed a number of lifestyle factors that feed into good health that insurers should be looking at and helping consumers to address, with scientific evidence to show they can contribute to an overall healthier lifestyle.

Dr Schoonbee said: “As insurers it is our business to understand health risk and that means recognising the material impact lifestyle factors have on a person’s insurability and our power to help consumers make improvements, acting as a health advisor rather than just a financial safety net.

“While numerous companies have been emerging to support people with health and wellness, our industry has its own role to play so it’s important we step up to the plate. This is why our 2021 New Year’s resolution at Swiss Re is to double down on research in this area.  Prevention is better than cure, so by moving beyond a linear, clinical approach to assessing health risks and taking a more holistic view on lifestyle factors, we will be able to develop more bespoke and effective insurance solutions, in turn helping people to pinpoint changes which will have a genuinely positive impact on their lives.”

Dr Schoonbee said he had identified five key areas that needed to be addressed:

  1. Boosting physical activity

“Perhaps obvious, but it needs to be said – the amount of physical activity people get matters a great deal,” he said. “Exercise affects insulin sensitivity and improves heart health and is therefore the most interconnected of all the lifestyle factors that can affect our overall health – it has implications for sleep and mental wellbeing which in turn can cascade into our food choices and substance use.

“For insurers looking to get a full understanding of someone’s health, it’s important to look at how sedentary they are. The more physical activity people do, the better – the World Health Organisation says 300 moderate or 150 vigorous minutes, is ideal for example. It is therefore essential we help people understand what counts as ‘vigorous’ and ‘moderate’ – think running or fast cycling for the former, and brisk walking and gardening as the latter – and appreciate the health benefits associated with different types of exercise.”

  1. Getting more sleep – but not too much!

“Sleep isn’t just a mental recovery process – the brain uses this time to eliminate toxins and perform other important functions,” explained Dr Schoonbee. “There are two key things to think about when talking to people about sleep – are they getting enough of it, and are they getting good quality. But getting enough sleep isn’t about getting the most sleep possible. It’s about getting the right amount and 7 hours is the magic number. Requiring more may actually be a consequence of an underlying health condition or poor sleep quality.”

  1. Don’t kickstart a diet without proper research

“Eating well has been well-documented in the past few years for its importance in overall health – entire industries are now built on it. But when it comes to public knowledge about nutrients, there is mass confusion as to which are better or worse,” he added. “The best and most straightforward approach to encourage is avoiding sugar, refined and ultraprocessed foods. Consuming fresh, whole ingredients and looking at nutritional facts labels are easy rule of thumbs for consumers to follow to avoid these processed products.

  1. Mental wellbeing

Dr Schoonbee warned: “Stress is intimately linked to physical health, resilience against illness and even recovery after illness. Essentially, the more stressed we are, the harder it becomes to maintain our health and bounce back when we get sick.

“While it is hard to prescribe a course of action for better mental wellbeing, the first three factors on this list (activity, sleep, nutrition) have a big impact upon it, so are a good place to start.

“As insurers, we shouldn’t view peoples’ mental health in isolation but try to think of it as interlinked with all of the other lifestyle factors around them. By helping people improving in one of the above areas, they will have also taken a step to better protecting their mental health and vice versa.

  1. Managing environment

“While we are all aware environmental factor such as pollution, exposure to chemicals or carcinogens and other unpleasant things can reduce your health, being able to actually control them is easier said than done,” he said. “Analysing the risks associated with one’s lifestyle is complex and deeply interconnected. But understanding the causative effects of these risk factors and how they can, or perhaps cannot, be managed together will make a huge difference someone’s health and wellbeing and could help set them on a healthier course for the rest of their life.”