The assistance industry knows very well the importance of innovation and the need to offer agile solutions to constantly evolving and complex situations. Managing medical cases across the globe brings different challenges every day, so innovation is an inherent part of the assistance mindset.
“High expectations have long driven a customer-first approach from assistance providers,” Angela Smith, Head of Proposition Development at Charles Taylor Assistance, told ITIJ. This approach, she says, includes easy communication choices and speedy access to relevant information, all aided by automated processes, which are now ‘fundamental to efficient assistance’. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has never been such a high demand from business and leisure travellers for access to information about the logistics of their planned trip, the risks involved, and the insurance and assistance cover available to them should anything go wrong.
“The pandemic has increased and expanded the travel assistance and insurance needs of travellers,” said James Sion, Chief Operating Officer at Generali Global Assistance. “They now seek more robust and flexible customised solutions, adaptable to their needs and delivered in the way they would like to communicate, at the time and method of their preference.”
The eager demand for insurance products and services that mitigate Covid risks has prompted the assistance industry to adapt its offerings to meet travellers’ needs and give them peace of mind. As such, a plethora of innovation has been seen in recent times in the assistance industry, as well as a renewed focus on travel planning.
“We need to build holistic and proactive assistance solutions that focus on convenience and protection to help travellers before, during and after their trips,” said Joe Mason, Chief Marketing Officer for Allianz Partners. “The pandemic and its aftermath will have long-term effects on the travel industry, and innovation will be ever-more important as travel suppliers and consumers look for products and services that will give people confidence to resume travelling.”
Assistance alterations thanks to Covid-19
Let’s look more specifically at the direct effects of the pandemic on innovation in the global assistance industry. There is no doubt that the assistance industry will have to – and is already – changing in response to the Covid pandemic, says Paul Weigall, Strategy Director for AP Companies Global Solutions. “Unfortunately, Covid, like flu and pneumonia, is here to stay and the whole of the healthcare industry will have to adapt and innovate to ensure people continue to receive appropriate treatment efficiently and safely,” he told ITIJ.
For their part, assistance providers have made an impressive start in adapting to Covid. Having had to meet the challenges posed by far-reaching crises in the past, such as ash clouds, financial crises and terrorist attacks, the global assistance industry really steps up in these sorts of situations, says Smith. Going forward, she adds, ‘flexibility, collaboration and cutting-edge technology will be key to effective innovation’.
“The globally mobile – both corporates and consumers – will increasingly want tools that enable them to anticipate threats and react quickly to emergencies,” commented Smith. “In this context, reliance on mobile technology is likely to grow. Easy access to individual risk assessments and advice, pre-travel education and tailored medical and security assistance and alerts could be in demand across both the consumer and corporate travel sectors.”
‘flexibility, collaboration and cutting-edge technology will be key to effective innovation’
Post-Covid, ‘assistance providers will need to take a more bespoke and customer-focused approach than ever’, she says, and ‘innovation will need to involve collaboration with clients to find out their true needs, and flexibility that enables clients to manage new products themselves if they want to do so: from claims dashboards that facilitate data management, to automated alerts and triggers’.
This form of self-service is something an increasing number of travellers are seeking out, as they are used to using similar technology to buy products and services in other areas of their lives. But no matter how travellers seek to gain access to the benefits of their cover, one thing is for sure; they are more aware than ever of the importance of travel cover in providing a safety blanket - and even being an enabler – for their trips.
“With the increasing awareness of the importance of travel insurance and the cover it provides, customers are now, understandably, demanding more from the quality of cover they receive,” said a spokesperson for AXA Partners. Like some other insurers, the company has seen a return to pre-Covid travel insurance purchasing levels in some countries, with more customers buying more comprehensive cover.
AXA Partners has also evolved its medical network offering as a direct result of the pandemic to assist travellers who need access to testing facilities abroad. “The need for information is much greater now,” said the company. “For example, people need to know where Covid testing facilities are located and up-to-date information about the latest travel restrictions. We have responded by adding a network of testing labs to our existing network providers and also make this information, together with relevant travel advice, available through Travel Eye, our crisis management platform for corporate travellers.”
Europ Assistance, meanwhile, has met the increased demand for information from travellers by providing ‘assistance hotlines’ in some countries, which offer the chance for travellers to call and ask for travel information before or during their trip. The type of help the hotlines provide include giving advice around travel restrictions, answering Covid-related concerns, and providing psychological assistance.
Much of the information and advice given by assistance providers is, of course, related to foreign travel, but domestic travel has made a huge resurgence due to some people’s apprehension about travelling in such uncertain times, and assistance providers have adapted to meet the needs of this growing demographic. With new cover products for staycations booming, this is just another area in which assistance providers have adapted, evolving their offering to enable policyholders to receive medical assistance even when travelling in their home country.
“The needs of our clients are changing,” explained Sion. “The pandemic has accelerated and accentuated this trend, and our job is to make sure they can find a product that matches their needs.”
Meeting new needs of travellers
Alongside meeting increased demands for up-to-the minute information and advice, assistance providers have delivered innovative partnerships with travel industry entities to bring help to travellers and boost traveller confidence. From offering testing services in resort, to tie-ups with airlines that give passengers automatic access to medical assistance services, the global assistance industry has been pushing the boundaries to reassure travellers and encourage travel to resume.
Europ Assistance’s partnership with Air Asia; AXA Partners’ tie-ups with Etihad, Ethiopian Airlines, TUI and Lufthansa; and Allianz Partners’ embedding of products into its airline partners’ ticket cost are just some examples of innovative approaches to encouraging travellers back into the air. At ground level, AP Companies’ work with cruise operators to provide testing for passengers and crew is well known. “PCR testing for Covid will be a necessity for at least the next couple of years,” says Weigall, so partnerships that ensure that those boarding and disembarking ships have been tested and thus cannot spread the virus, are extremely important.
Other ways that assistance providers have adapted to help with the return to travel have included the expansion of their health-related tools and platforms, which are meeting customers’ demands for access to medical information remotely and quickly. Charles Taylor’s digital health risk management tool, Venture, for example, is being used to support a range of bespoke back-to-work and back-to-travel scenarios. It does this by helping corporates to manage duty of care obligations by providing individual employee health risk assessments that enable employers to make decisions about employees’ suitability for safe travel. “It’s important that innovation is driven by client and customer needs and that we work closely with and listen to clients to establish these,” commented Smith.
Similarly, Global Excel Management launched a Covid-specific version of StandbyMD, its directional care programme, to help ensure traveller’s new health needs were met. The product, available free of charge to clients and members, is designed to steer users to the right type of care, even if the advice is to wait it out at home, ‘based on multiple policies, guidelines, and protective measures’, said John Spears, the company’s Vice-President of Business Development and Marketing.
Whether offering assistance as an incentive to get people travelling, coming up with innovative solutions to help companies assess travel risks, or adapting existing solutions to help those already overseas, protecting travellers’ health has, naturally, been a key focus for travellers and assistance providers alike. A big part of this, as ITIJ has recently explored, has been the exponential rollout and uptake of telemedicine.
Telemedicine as a permanent travel assistance solution
Although the pandemic certainly encouraged new innovations, it also accelerated certain innovative solutions that had already started to make waves. A prime example is telemedicine.
Over the last 16 months, assistance companies have launched new telehealth offerings and expanded existing ones – all in a bid to meet the increased demand for remote care brought about by the pandemic. Europ Assistance, for example, has expanded the channels – such as video and chat – through which it offers its telehealth services, and Francine Abgrall, Group Head of Travel, says the company has seen an increased comfort with telemedicine among users in recent times. Indeed, as people have become used to communicating in a digital way during global lockdowns, it’s something most assistance companies see continuing into the future.
“We believe that the demand for telehealth services will only grow in the coming years as people want access to health services remotely,” said Mason. “We have also seen a huge uptake in the use of our telehealth services; for example, our symptom checker, Dr Chat and teleconsultation services.” As a result, the company has begun incorporating access to telehealth services into some of its travel insurance products. “We believe that these kinds of services will become a standard part of travel insurance in the future.”
Customers will expect to be able to access everything they need through one app
AXA Partners’ online medical consultation service Dr Please likewise saw a 40-per-cent usage increase since the pandemic, and the company sees the convenience of such online services – which can be accessed any time of day from anywhere in the world – being a driver for their continued high uptake. Certainly, making medical assistance easy to access is a major focus when it comes to innovation for assistance companies.
“Easing assistance processes will be all-important in the future,” says Smith, whose company has launched a range of digital health tools and services in recent years and is ‘currently exploring wider ways of enabling customers abroad to reach out for help, for instance via telemedicine’, while also looking at the role of AI in helping it further improve the information and support it provides to assistance customers.
One of the common ways to initiate a telemedicine consultation is to book an appointment via an app, and this is something that providers including AP Companies now offer. “Developing the apps to provide more services is going to be vital,” stated Weigall. “Customers will expect to be able to access everything they need through one app. The need to attend physical appointments, especially for initial consultations, will become less important; booking appointments for PCR tests and Covid booster jabs will be commonplace.”
Global Excel also sees a greater emphasis on outbreak alert and assistance apps and sees this as part of a fundamental change in how patients receive care and support. “I think it’s unlikely we’ll witness a complete return to pre-Covid healthcare delivery, which has for decades had trouble keeping up with innovative service delivery models seen in other industry segments,” said Spears. “We’re seeing new technology take its place, existing technology being used in new ways, new players enter the field and changing service delivery methods.”
Covid-19 forced the healthcare industry to innovate, he continued. “Moving forward, innovation won’t just be important; it will be a key element in any organisation’s quest to remain relevant.”
Overcoming barriers to innovation in travel assistance
Despite technology being a key enabler when it comes to innovation, assistance companies agree that the human element will always be vital to developing assistance services. Coming up with products and services that are focussed on travellers’ needs are the ‘backbone of continued innovation in the travel insurance and assistance industry’, says Mason. And this is something no computer is capable of just yet.
The industry must also remain agile. “Long-term planning is now a thing of the past,” said AXA Partners. “We must react fast to the emerging travel environment and pre-empt customer needs.”
Agility and innovation face common barriers across the industry, though, with assistance providers working hard to overcome them. Smith says the biggest barrier to innovation is not investing in research and development. However, ‘allocating resources to allow for continued innovation is a key challenge for every organisation’, says Mason. Other barriers, he says, are silos and keeping innovation local, so his company is working hard to ensure its innovations are pushed out to its representatives in other parts of the world.
In the spirit of sharing and collaborating, many businesses agree that innovation is a process that involves input from various teams. “To innovate, you must know what problem needs solving, and then you must come up with a creative, efficient solution to that problem,” said Spears. “A lack of properly understanding the problems faced and coming up with effective solutions are some common barriers to innovation.” The way his company approaches this issue is to consult with all involved parties to see the problem from every angle; involve relevant team members and clients in brainstorming, testing, and rapid prototyping; and garner feedback and other data to make continuous improvements.
Involving a range of company employees and interested parties also helps overcome resistance to change and brings fresh perspectives. As Sion told ITIJ: “Everyone’s input brings something to the table – a different perspective and may just be the game changer out there.”
But collaborative efforts might reach new levels of meaning as the global assistance industry moves into the future. “During Covid, we’ve experienced some very complex cases and we have worked together with other assistance companies to deliver the best outcome for our shared customers,” said AXA Partners. “If we could continue to build on those partnerships, we believe it would not only make us more efficient but also benefit our customers.”
The company isn’t alone in its sentiments. “If there were no boundaries [to innovation in the assistance industry],” mused Smith, “I would like to see a collaborative, industry-wide innovation that allows people to travel safely and that benefits the entire travel market.” Let’s hope this spirit of collaboration builds momentum and the global assistance industry continues to forge ahead with its desire to work more closely together to bring innovative solutions directly to travellers in need. This sounds like an exciting first step in what could be a beautiful future.