Opinion 

Critical Illness cover is 35 years old - and just as critical

Ambika Fraser

Dr Marius Barnard himself couldn’t have imagined that critical illness insurance would one day become quite this impactful.

The heart surgeon who, along with his brother, accomplished the first human heart transplant knew he could fix the body. But insurers needed to fix the finances. 

Critical illness cover - born as a means to protect one’s finances after a critical diagnosis – has risen in popularity over its 35-year history. 

According to Swiss Re data, the number of lives covered by group critical illness protection has grown 73 per cent over the past five years. Group sales have nearly doubled, too, as employers and employees figure out the financial perks of this cover. 

There are several possible reasons for its sky-high growth: 

  • Simple. Critical illness is an easy product to explain, and there’s no payment schedule because it’s lump sum benefit.
  • Flexible. The benefits paid to those covered can be used for medical and no-medical expenses. The lump sum nature of the benefits create flexibility, allowing employees to use their payments however they see fit, whether it’s paying for a procedure or helping pay the mortgage.
  • Distinguishing. Having this on offer can distinguish an adviser’s portfolio. For employers who offer it, it can show employees they care about their physical and financial health. 
  • Well-rounded. Critical illness works as a solid complement to NHS services and private medical insurance, as medical expenses can quickly escalate. 
  • Critical. Cancer and heart disease are still the top two reasons for critical illness claims, and among the top five reasons for long-term absence from work. 

But the healthcare landscape is very different today than it was 35 years ago, and providers need to evolve their offering and innovate this cover to add even greater, more relevant value to the lives relying on it. 

Today’s workers are facing medical and financial challenges as vital – yet finite – NHS resources are increasingly strained. The results are longer waiting lists and delays in referrals, diagnostic tests and subsequent treatment. 

Expedited payments could be a game changer to enable quicker access to treatment. As most policies stand today, patients diagnosed with heart disease may have to wait until the actual operation to receive a benefit payment. 

But if those covered by a critical illness policy could receive their benefit payment when they’re put on a waiting list, patients would have more options - like funding a procedure privately - which could make a crucial difference if time is of the essence. 

Increasing cancer support under critical illness another need born out of today’s NHS cancer resources becoming increasingly pressurised.

Unum’s data shows that cancer is the number cause of claims, and we witness the fear and distress it causes to patients and their families. 

While the NHS offers patients a wide variety of cancer services, limited resources can create challenges for those navigating treatment options and complex care processes, not to mention the emotional strain that comes with diagnoses.

Innovating critical illness cover to better dovetails with NHS services can be invaluable to patients. For instance, Harley Street Concierge, Unum’s cancer care partner, provides clinical, practical and emotional support for those covered, including access to second opinions, quick answers and confidence in treatment plans. 

More can be done. Enhancements, such as the scope of conditions covered or simplifying nuances for consumers, can also add even greater to an already beneficial product. 

As providers, we must always move forward to provide the best possible protection for British workers, and I believe we can do more to ensure critical illness meets the needs of  today’s workers.

Ambika Fraser is head of proposition development at Unum UK  

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