The growth of virtual health solutions

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Lightening the burden with virtual health

As people become busier and increasingly time poor, they find themselves more reliant on technology to help their lives run smoothly, and health is no exception. With input from Phil Austin, International Markets Global Head of Strategy and Distribution, and Dr Peter Mills, Associate Medical Director, Cigna Europe discusses the growth of virtual health solutions

While virtual health in itself isn’t ‘new news’, we are starting to see a growing number attracted by the convenience of online consultations, with more people moving away from the mindset of having to see their primary care doctor. Our research shows that 38 per cent of patients wait on average more than four days to see a GP*. Embracing virtual healthcare enables a faster, more accessible and convenient route to health and wellbeing support. Indeed, millions of pounds have been funnelled into virtual health and, consequently, the global market for telemedicine is expected to exceed US$130.5 billion by 2025**.

As technology advances and attitudes towards digital outputs in healthcare evolve, more and more employers are integrating virtual solutions into their employee wellness programmes to help combat illness, unhealthy lifestyles, and ultimately help create behavioural change. 

From virtual GPs, online guides and health assessments, to interactive websites and dedicated apps, these platforms and innovative lifestyle management programmes can educate, inspire, engage and motivate users to become more involved in their own care, and to ultimately live a healthier lifestyle.  

Embracing virtual healthcare enables a faster, more accessible and convenient route to health and wellbeing support

This is being helped by the rise in smartphone users and growth of device proficiency. In our recent Cigna 2019 Well-being Survey3, which surveyed 13,000 people across 22 countries, six in 10 respondents (59 per cent) expressed a willingness to use mobile health services in the future – a clear sign that the customer has an appetite for the technology. Sure, it’s only been a few years that the mass population has had access to a smartphone or device that can provide a workable remote consultation, but as that capability grows we will start to see the general population increasingly have effective telehealth consultations and engage with such wellbeing tools.

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Building a culture of wellbeing should be a commitment that is embraced and shared with the entire organisation.

The importance of personalisation

Employers, however, must recognise that, in today’s diverse workforce, a one-size-fits-all digital healthcare strategy doesn’t work. Chronic conditions such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease are an everyday reality that come with many prescriptions and often confusing parameters to keep symptoms at bay. These will still require face-to-face visits to touch base with a specialist for optimal care. However, the heavy burden of managing a chronic health condition can be lightened by using telehealth to improve self-care skills and receive encouragement to become more proactive in managing care. More hospitals are starting to bundle that into the experience.

The globally mobile population is another area that requires a tailored digital solution. There have been many providers over the years that have delivered local-based solutions for people living and working in their area. However, as an international insurer, we recognised some time ago that an international virtual healthcare solution was required so that no matter where a person was in the world, they would get a telehealth consultation with a GP or specialist in their chosen language. It’s important to us to provide a multi-lingual and multi-geographical solution along with tailored clinical and lifestyle support to globally mobile employees.

Digital tools improving employee wellbeing

Mental health and stress in the workplace are other areas that can hugely benefit from a digital approach. Our Cigna 360 Well-Being Survey found a staggering 72 per cent of British workers currently suffer from stress, the majority of which, (56 per cent), work in an ‘always on’ corporate culture. And only 11 per cent have sought professional help. 

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More and more employers are integrating virtual solutions into their employee wellness programmes.

Elsewhere, according to our 360 Wellbeing Survey – Globally Mobile Individuals report, just under three quarters of globally mobile employees (72 per cent) are unhappy with their work-life balance and the lack of time available to spend with family. This, coupled with social isolation and increasing loneliness, exacerbated by the loss of a support network, are often major triggers for depression and anxiety. Working overseas has its benefits, but the reality of life in a new country can be an emotional upheaval. Technology is crucial in helping globally mobile employees not only stay connected with loved ones but also in accessing high-quality healthcare when they need it. 

That’s where virtual health apps can be a game-changer. A key feature of virtual health apps is convenient access to Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), providing globally mobile workers with easy access to counselling, online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness programmes to support many types of mental health concerns.

As an international insurer, we recognised some time ago that an international virtual healthcare solution was required

To help employers manage these prevailing issues, Cigna offers a self-referral pathway for anyone who may have an emotional wellbeing concern. Employees can use this service to bypass their GP and can simply book in for a telephone assessment. They will then be provided with advice, support and, where necessary, will be fast tracked to appropriate treatment. Our Living Life to the Full resource is free and accessible to all, and its courses help users find solutions to stress and anxiety. 
Personalised apps, such as Cigna Virtual Health or our dedicated globally mobile employee app Cigna Wellbeing, provide real-time health and wellness coaching, together with 24/7 video and telephone consultations with doctors, nurses and healthcare specialists. With preventative care and behavioural change at the heart of the apps, they offer collective, integrated and innovative tools that give users greater control of their health and wellbeing via online coaching.

Employers are beginning to recognise the cost of poor health at work, and as a health services provider, it’s our job to develop our capabilities and create innovative products, services and partnerships that address customers’ needs. Having the right support in place and early intervention can have significant positive impact on a prognosis, reduce the cost of treatment and help employees to return to work quickly.

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The heavy burden of managing a chronic health condition can be lightened by using telehealth.

Our nurses are the glue that connect the care

But with the explosion of technology and the simplicity of doing everything online comes the danger of losing the personal touch. There has been some criticism of virtual health and the balancing act of maintaining the in-patient experience, particularly for those who are engaging with other healthcare services as part of their treatment programme.

It’s therefore important to integrate clinical care with a digital offering; something we are very passionate about at Cigna. We have a strong medical and supportive nurse-led care team who ensure the connection between the individual’s consultation and the rest of their care is maintained. Once a patient has had their initial virtual consultation, they will be passed on to a Cigna nurse who will case manage them – no matter where they live or work in the world. The nurse will be their dedicated point of contact to follow up their consultation and if required, support them as they are passed over to one of our network providers. This level of care and support sits very high on our agenda.

When people are in good health they want to maintain it. When they’re ill, they want to be seen right away and when they’ve been diagnosed with a health condition they want to be able to manage it. Convenient healthcare is the driving force behind emerging digital health, and at Cigna Europe we have invested heavily in our digital capabilities and app technology in the past 12 months.  This has allowed us to move into a space where we are not just treating conditions but helping to catch them early – and ultimately prevent them.

Building a culture of wellbeing is more than just a series of digital programmes – it should be a commitment that is embraced and shared with the entire organisation. This foundation is key to a successful wellbeing strategy, and moreover the best way to create an overall culture of wellbeing in the workplace.  ■