There are certain considerations for medical networks that apply across the board, irrespective of region. For example, ensuring a patient’s needs can be met is universally number one, with providers having a responsibility to ensure this support is available – therefore, a strong network is crucial. But to establish this, due diligence must take place, alongside a thorough review to determine suitability. Beyond this, there are peculiarities associated with different parts of the world, where healthcare quality is more difficult to guarantee.
When building medical networks in Asia, what do insurance and assistance companies need to be aware of? Once established, good provider relationships require ongoing work and maintenance. These networks can be seen as fluid and evolving and new opportunities may arise, with Asia representing an important market. “Allianz Partners is always exploring potential provider networks, as well as expanding on existing ones,” stated Francois-Xavier Duchateau, Group Chief Medical Officer, Allianz Partners. “Asia is an important growth region.”
A fit-for-purpose provider network offers reliability and consistency in care, as articulated by Romain di Meglio, CEO, APRIL International Asia: “A reliable, comprehensive provider network is key to delivering peace of mind to our insured members. They don’t necessarily know how healthcare systems work, or where to go if they need medical attention. By visiting a hospital, clinic or provider that belongs to our network, they can be confident of access to the best quality of care and, at the same time, not worry about having to pay out of pocket.” As such, irrespective of the region, expectations can be managed, with consistency ensured.
When managing the cost of care, di Meglio highlighted how close relationships are imperative. “As an insurance provider, working directly with medical providers allows us to have closer control over medical expenses,” he stated. “Our members enjoy the best possible rates whenever they go to our network, allowing us to provide care at fair prices, continuing to offer sustainable insurance products in the long run.”
As an insurance provider, working directly with medical providers allows us to have closer control over medical expenses
ITIJ also spoke with David Stone, Global Provider Network Manager, World Travel Protection, who confirmed the importance of accuracy and due diligence when establishing connections. For World Travel Protection, this has meant developing an internal network, which has proven fruitful. “We have been able to create, maintain and continually develop our own internal GlobalCare Network (GCN),” said Stone. “The GCN facilitates the collation of provider relationships that we have established and nurtured over the years, into an easily accessible resource. It ensures provider details and service capacity information is accurate, and that a recent and satisfactory due diligence process has been completed to ensure the currency of their registration, licensing, accreditation and insurance.”
The overall package
When assessing a potential partner, one criteria is key: “The level of care is the most important aspect of any provider relationship,” underlined di Meglio. “Our partners must follow the latest, best-in-class standards. We will assess their equipment, medical team, as well as treatment plans. For complex procedures, we tend to favour providers who follow international guidelines (meaning they would explore non-invasive treatments before resorting to surgery, for instance). Our team carefully checks the accreditation and registration by local authorities of every potential provider we work with.”
Duchateau also emphasised the importance of high-quality care, alongside reasonable prices. “Across all lines of business at Allianz Partners, we require networks that offer accessible, good quality care, at reasonable and customary tariffs for all types of conditions. Meeting these objectives is fundamental to any decision-making process, wherever and whenever we establish new networks,” he said. Di Meglio agreed that customer cost is a crucial factor, especially in Asia. “One particularity of the Asia market is no local authority regulating healthcare costs within private medical facilities. So, an important element for medical providers is the guarantee that they will be able to provide treatment at reasonable and customary costs,” he stated. “We build strong relationships with providers whose high standard of care comes at a fair price.”
A maturity in the relationship
Treatment costs present a challenge, said Stone, as they are going up: “Asia is a vast and varied region – from highly developed international centres with access to excellent healthcare, to regional, rural and remote locations with barely the basics. Customers are adventurous, and corporate clients have expats and business travellers going to remote locations with their own risks, that are just not the same at home (e.g. infection, altitude, security and political instability, road/building/ transport/personal safety, etc.). Protections against inflation are lessening, due to globalisation and supply chain challenges.
We will build strong relationships with providers whose high standard of care comes with a fair price
Open communication and receiving and implementing feedback are also essential. “We value the relationships we build with our providers, so we grow to trust in their services, communication and pricing efficiencies,” said Stone. “Opportunities for improvement are regularly identified through internal/external feedback from a customer, client, provider or within our own team. The ability to undertake constructive analysis and have open communication with stakeholders that results in corrective action/s – to improve systems on all sides – demonstrates a level of relationship maturity we aim to achieve with provider partners.”
Identifying the best way forward
A key challenge when building medical networks is that quality of care varies depending on the region – and can be limited in more remote areas. “Medical provider capabilities in Asian markets vary greatly, depending on geographical location,” said Duchateau. “Some are centres of medical excellence, while other areas are classified as remote locations, with limited medical capabilities. This can increase the medical risk to managing patients.” ITIJ spoke with Paul Hogan, International SOS General Manager, Assistance EMEA & Group GM, Air Rescue, who concurred: “Remote locations often lack access to basic healthcare services, making it difficult for our clients to receive timely and appropriate attention. There may be a shortage of specialised providers, and patients frequently need to travel long distances for an upgrade in medical care. Very often, these facilities lack infection control measures and adequate levels of hygiene.”
For complex procedures, we tend to favour medical providers who follow international guidelines
Cultural differences or subtleties in medical practice can also be a hindrance. Hogan pointed out that providers in remote locations often work under very different circumstances when compared to national or regional cities. “They may not have had exposure to many international patients. It is important that the international patient is well briefed to manage their expectations, as many of their norms may not be available. For example, respect for patient privacy and confidentiality can be lacking – and doctors’ bedside manners may vary,” he said. Dialogue between providers, but also with patients, is of utmost importance. Stone agreed: “Various modes of communication and languages may present a challenge, but can always be overcome with joint negotiation and agreement of the best way forward.”
Another touchpoint is instability, which can complicate evacuation plans. “It’s essential to identify facilities where we can safely meet our customers’ needs in remote locations,” reported Duchateau. “Reliable evacuation options, for example, are particularly important. In some geographies, achieving this level of service is made difficult by instability – whether that’s geopolitical, security, economic, or in terms of technology infrastructure. These issues need to be carefully assessed and managed, and may sometimes restrict our ability to build and maintain networks.”
Medical provider capabilities in Asian markets vary greatly, depending on geographical location
Knowledge is power
Part of maintaining a consistent and efficient provider network is understanding local healthcare systems. “We are covering a large number of countries and regions, and it is an ongoing effort to develop and maintain a comprehensive knowledge of facilities available,” said di Meglio. “In remote regions, quality of care can sometimes be difficult to guarantee. Medical emergencies are usually the trickiest situations.” For APRIL International Asia, local agents help ensure knowledge is advanced and up to date. “We can also rely on local agents, who know each healthcare system and facility. This ensures that we have experts on the ground in each country, city, or area where our members are living or travelling – whether internally or externally,” said di Meglio. For World Travel Protection, site inspections are important for developing emergency response plans, said Stone: “A physical site inspection is undertaken, where confirmation of the capability of an essential service provider, in a specific location, is required. This enables us to have confidence in our decision-making about evacuation and transfer for a customer, while also contributing to the creation of accurate Medical Emergency Response Plans.”
Ultimately, assistance companies and insurers should build a solid medical network that can appropriately and effectively respond to patient needs. Di Meglio highlighted this shared responsibility and the importance of putting contingency plans in place. “Medical emergencies are always unpredictable, so it is our responsibility to react quickly. Our assistance teams are highly trained to deal with this kind of situation and assess the quality of care that can be provided by a medical facility,” he said. “When there is no suitable facility available locally, it is of utmost importance to have robust processes in place. We need to be extremely reactive to determine if an evacuation to the nearest hospital is needed and arrange it swiftly. The same applies to remote regions, where the quality of care is harder to guarantee.”
For providers, quality of care and fair cost are important considerations in the Asian market and beyond – and they take full accountability for ensuring this can be delivered. This relies on strong and effective networks which, beyond the initial vetting, require maintenance and ongoing communication. As di Meglio stated: “We want to ensure our members have access to the right treatment, whether it is a medical emergency or a simple consultation, with the right provider and at a cost that is fair and in line with market practice.”