‘Prevention is better than cure’ approach to health sets new agenda

When Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock announced the government’s ‘Prevention is better than cure’ vision and corresponding green paper on Monday, it echoed what members of the healthcare and life insurance industry have been arguing for years.

Addressing the Annual Meeting of the International Association of National Public Health Institutes, he said: “Prevention… is about ensuring people take greater responsibility for managing their own health. It is about choosing to look after themselves better, staying active and stopping smoking; making better choices by limiting alcohol, sugar, salt and fat.

Alongside the government’s goal to extend life expectancy five years by 2035, he also pointed out that “only with better prevention can our NHS be sustainable in the long-term”.

The overwhelming majority of NHS budget is spent on acute care, with just £11bn going to primary care, where most prevention is managed.

Value-added services

With wellness benefits, health-related gamification and incentives for physical activity at the heart of many insurance policies, it is unsurprising that healthcare and life insurance providers are ideally placed to offer their assistance in the war against bad health.

“Public Health England research in 2016 revealed that illnesses associated with lifestyle cost the NHS £11bn,” said Neville Koopowitz, CEO of VitalityHealth. “This is an avoidable cost to society and, in an era of challenging financial choices for the country, it is an expense healthcare providers must attempt to address.

“At Vitality we know that a few simple lifestyle changes can have a hugely positive impact on people’s future wellness,” he added. “Our member data shows claims costs decreased by up to 33% when physical activity levels increased, demonstrating that prevention is as important as cure when it comes to our health.”

Employers

According to John Dean, chief commercial director for Punter Southall Health and Protection, it is “the first time” the government has spoken about health prevention rather than treatment. “It is a watershed moment that also sends a massive wake up call to UK employers to take action,” he said.

The initial report from the Department of Health and Social Care acknowledges that early proactive action from employers is important in retaining and reintegrating those struggling with ill health or off sick, while highlighting the use of flexible adjustments to the workplace and working hours in order to help people stay well.

Dean believes employers will need to shift the focus of employee benefits spending away from illness or death and towards healthcare and wellness solutions by embracing technology and assessing employee welfare more efficiently.

“Technology exists today that enables companies to screen people’s DNA, their blood and their physical and mental health. Such screenings can be a one-off investment for companies that would give employees valuable personal health information that will help them make informed choices about their future health,” he said. “Employers would also gain a high-level overview of their workforce health which can enable them to make informed investments in wellbeing.”

The Health Secretary’s announcement on Monday is “a massive opportunity for companies to focus their money and energy on predictive solutions that can help them better understand the health of their people and inform wellbeing and health solutions,” said Dean. “It also makes complete business sense to invest in the health of the majority, as prevention is definitely better than cure.”

SMEs

The report also mentions that many employers, especially small businesses, lack access to expert advice when it comes to illness prevention, maintaining workplace wellness and offering solutions to staff.

“Not all businesses have access to resources needed to support their staff and addressing this should be the government’s next priority,” said Peter O’Donnell, CEO of Unum. “We hope measures to incentivise business of all sizes – especially SMEs – form part of the government’s prevention plan.”

Unum, like many others in the industry, is pleased that the government has committed to a consultation next year on measures to encourage and support all employers in fulfilling its agenda.

“We know that early and proactive action by employers can make the difference between supporting someone to remain in work and falling away from the labour market entirely,” said Dr Zakir Abbas, Unum UK’s chief medical officer, who also argued that group protection products are placed perfectly to aid prevention.

“Often the benefits that come with income protection policies – like access to counselling or rehabilitation services – prove invaluable in either preventing absence or helping people back to work. In some cases employees don’t know these services are available, so increasing communication, as well as access, needs to be considered.”