Health insurance will go digital, eventually


Whenever my wife and I receive a health insurance statement in the mail, we begin a familiar ritual. I open the envelope, show the contents to my wife (the policyholder) and ask, "You want this?"

She shakes her head. I walk downstairs and add it to the growing pile of explanations of benefits that--next weekend, honey, I swear--I'll stuff into a manila folder in a file cabinet that, at this point, is too heavy to move.

This scenario--which plays itself out all too often at my house, and probably at yours--came to mind as I perused the results of an Accenture survey on digital innovation in the insurance industry.

There's a direct correlation between an expectation of future growth and a warm embrace of technology among the world's major auto, home and life insurance firms, Accenture found. The vast majority of these companies see digitization changing their customer expectations and interactions. Tellingly, when it comes to competition, these insurers expect to be challenged as much by online service providers and price comparison websites as by other insurance companies.

Health insurance, obviously, works a bit differently. No one expects Amazon or Google to challenge the Blues of the world. After all, Silicon Valley is too busy challenging just about everybody else.

That doesn't mean insurers can rest on their laurels, though. Small, agile firms--think Amazon or Google circa 2000--jump at the chance to shake things up. Like the disruptors of yesteryear, they, too, use emerging digital technology to their advantage.  

Take Oscar Health. Earlier this year, FierceHealthPayer described how Oscar disrupts the online experience by giving consumers search engines and maps when they want to look up a doctor. It's a far cry from the drop-down menus or, worse, lists seen on many insurer websites.

Last week, we reported on Oscar's plan to give consumers a free wearable device, track member's activity and reward anyone who hits his or her fitness goals. Employers increasingly do this through wellness programs, but insurers going straight to their customers remain rare.

This type of innovation may occur in isolation for several more years. Typical consumers aren't terribly thrilled with the idea of their health insurers knowing their level of physical (in)activity and using that information to nonchalantly suggest products and services from which they might benefit. (Would you give your spouse a gym membership as a holiday gift? Only if you like sleeping on the couch, I imagine.)

That said, typical consumers also aren't terribly thrilled with the pile of paper in the basement, the office, the garage or wherever else people put their personal document purgatory. Most insurers remind me of the Boy Who Cried Wolf--so many letters say THIS IS NOT A BILL in bold print that the correspondence that's actually important can easily be cast aside as yet another meaningless communique, only to eat you up when you least expect it.

The road to digitization will be long and bumpy for the health insurance industry. After all, the customers using the healthcare system the most are also the ones most likely to have limited or impaired access to technology resources. The folks wearing pedometers, interacting with brands on social media and checking their smartphones 150 times a day, by and large, aren't the ones making regular trips to the doctor to treat multiple comorbidities.

That said, insurers can't sacrifice the future for the sake of the past. Firms such as Oscar are small now, based on novel ideas. Back in the day, so, too, were Blue Cross and Blue Shield. In due time, great small ideas turn into great big ideas.

Technology will shape the future of health insurance. It may not happen next year, or even the year after, but in due time that pile of EOBs in the basement will stop growing and I'll have little choice but to finally file them all away.

Hmm. Maybe next weekend. - Brian (@Brian_Eastwood and @HealthPayer)