As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded, health insurance company Aetna was quick to offer support to the community — to businesses, employees, and their loved ones. As early as March, the company extended access to its telehealth service, vHealth, to ensure that all its UAE members had uninterrupted access to sound medical advice. Excerpts from an interview with Catherine Darroue, Senior Director of Customer Proposition, EMEA, Aetna International.
How has Aetna responded to the COVID-19 crisis?
We were acutely aware of the economics of the COVID-19 world and rolled out several initiatives to alleviate the financial burden on members and customers. Any Aetna International member that required diagnostic testing for the coronavirus was subsequently reimbursed in full for both the test and the associated consultation. In early April, Aetna also started waiving all deductibles for inpatient hospital admissions related to COVID-19.
Given the impact of COVID-19 on mental health, members also continued to benefit from 24-hour access to clinical counsellors via our Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) and could access WorldAware (red24) to stay informed of any significant travel, safety, or security-related incidents. In addition, they gained free access to myStrength — an interactive, personalised app that helps address depression, anxiety, stress — and Wysa, a well-being app with an AI-driven chat function.
Could you share some highlights from Aetna’s recent digital health dilemma study?
In March 2020, Aetna International conducted an international survey — including over 1,000 respondents from the UAE — to gauge employees’ views on workplace technology and digital health services and their impact on employee health and well-being. The results offer a unique snapshot of a key moment in history.
On the positive side, respondents have clearly bought into technology’s ability to improve connectivity, collaboration and productivity and, as a result, worker health and well-being. 93 per cent of workers in the UAE say technology lets them complete simple tasks quickly, connect with co-workers across different locations and receive job support. 85 per cent say technology lets them manage time better, thus reducing stress levels. And 54 per cent of UAE workers say technology helps them improve physical and mental health overall.
Furthermore, UAE employees clearly believe that technological innovation and digital tools and services could further help them to improve their health. One area of note is mental health — while less than 40 per cent of respondents say they currently use video, text-based or telephonic solutions to help manage their mental health, an equal number said that they might consider these options in future.
That being said, while most employees recognise the advantages of workplace technology, they do acknowledge that it has its drawbacks. For example, 72 per cent of UAE respondents believe that being able to have a company mobile phone to handle work calls and emails remotely helps them better manage their mental health. Yet almost the same percentage (69 per cent) worry that they use their phones too much. That’s probably why 61 per cent try to check their phones less often.
A big concern is that digital technology contributes to an “always-on” mindset. 73 per cent of UAE respondents admit to checking their phones first thing in the morning for work-related messages, whilst nearly an equal number (74 per cent) do the same thing right before going to bed.
How has Aetna responded to the increase in demand for telemedicine?
In today’s digital-first world where the likes of Airbnb, Netflix, Uber and Zomato have essentially become verbs, it isn’t surprising that we are seeing consumers demand ease of use, convenience and quality of service from healthcare providers and associated products and services. As a consequence, particularly over the last year, we have seen tremendous uptake, both in the demand for, and the number of telehealth offerings in the market. We’re also seeing healthcare providers start to offer various mental health services via easy-to-access applications or via phone or video chat.
We offer our members access to a telehealth service via vHealth. Launched in 2018, the purpose of vHealth is to provide a high-quality healthcare service that fits in with modern living. Every aspect of vHealth has been designed with the customer in mind. So, in addition to giving patients access to experienced doctors that have been trained in telemedicine to international standards, we have put a major emphasis on making the service convenient and easy to use with the launch of an application and a concierge service for everything from managing appointments and arranging specialist referrals or regular follow-ups, to organising prescriptions delivery or diagnostic tests at the patient’s home or office. We’ve seen a 180 per cent increase in global utilisation between April 2019 and April 2020, with some regions more than doubling their usage during this time.
What, according to you, are the major healthcare market segments that are likely to expand this year, and why is this so?
For one, I believe we are going to see an increase in demand for primary care. Particularly here in the UAE, where people have a choice and immediate access, primary care is sometimes seen as an unwanted gatekeeper — a place you have to go before you can get through to the specialist you think you really need. However, when you break it down, it’s actually primary care that enables the sustainability of health care systems, contains extortionate cost inflation over time, safeguards responsible medical practice and ensures coordination across a range of medical conditions. In fact, it's a crucial first check mechanism before people get into secondary care. That's why we're now seeing a resurgence in primary care.
Closely tied to this is telehealth. Consumer preference for more digital engagement models is a big contributing factor, but so is COVID-19. The social distancing and self-isolation have brought a paradigm shift to many behaviours, particularly when it comes to how we choose to interact with doctors — not many of us want to sit in a waiting room for fear that we might get exposed to the virus. Also, if you cast your mind back twenty years, you may remember that GP appointments were only available Sunday through Thursday, 9am to 5pm. This made life very difficult if you were a full-time employee, a working parent or simply needed a doctor out of hours. Now consider that more than 60 per cent of primary care can be done without physically touching the patient. Taking a good history, getting vital sign readings and/or conducting an examination — prerequisites of an effective consultation — can all be done virtually, so telehealth will definitely see exponential growth over the next few years.
Finally, COVID-19 has shone a light on mental well-being, and the importance of mental resilience. And while the sector has made strides in this area, much is left to be done, whether it be in terms of raising awareness or providing tools and resources to help people improve mental health and well-being. No doubt, this will be an area of significant focus and growth going forward.
This article appears in the latest issue of Omnia Health Magazine. Read the full issue online today, covering cybersecurity in healthcare, the ongoing rise of telehealth and much more.