The COVID-19 pandemic drove a shift in how people understand the relationship between their health, both physical and mental, and their financial wellbeing, according to Sun Life president and CEO Kevin Strain (pictured), who joined Insurance Business to share why pandemic impacts led the more than 150-year-old life insurer to take a fresh approach to health and wellness.
“COVID has been an incredibly challenging and impactful period for everyone, and it’s made us all more aware of our health, the importance of staying healthy and the importance of insurance to be there when we’re not healthy,” Strain said. “COVID accelerated that understanding that we can get sick, and if we get sick it has impacts on our financial security.”
In addition to changing individuals’ understanding of their own needs, the pandemic also had lasting ramifications in terms of how life insurance and wealth group Sun Life looks at healthcare.
“COVID accelerated the digital change to our business and forced us to think and act more like a digital company and it also made our clients more aware of their health and their health risks, and the importance of having coverage,” Strain said. “At the same time, it had a big impact on healthcare systems around the world and it accelerated our thinking around, ‘how do we help our clients navigate healthcare systems? How do we help our clients with their own wellness?’ Even, ‘how do we provide health care?’.”
As of October 12, 2023, upwards of 6.9 million COVID-related deaths had been reported globally, according to World Health Organization (WHO) figures. Research regarding long COVID, defined as conditions that persist for more than 12 weeks after an initial coronavirus (COVID-19) infection, is ongoing; at least 65 million individuals were said to have long COVID in a Nature review published in January 2023, with more than 200 symptoms identified, including potentially debilitating effects.
Many governments worldwide imposed sweeping lockdowns and social distancing measures when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in 2020, in bids to limit the virus’s impact while firms and governments worked to develop vaccines. Despite measures, the virus’s spread placed stresses on healthcare systems and providers, as many hospitals ran out of beds and intensive and critical care units overflowed during the pandemic’s peaks.
Immediate healthcare and logistical impacts went on to act as barriers to care and diagnoses for some individuals, due to delays and access issues that were buoyed by many individuals’ hesitancy to be seen in person; in Canada, for example, reviews found a slump in critical cancer screenings in some provinces during the first year and early months of the pandemic, leading to backlogs, 2022 research published in the Canadian Family Physician found.
Meanwhile, shutdowns, digital pivots, and remote working added to the phenomenon of social isolation, which had already been described as a “behavioral epidemic” witnessed across North America, Europe, and China prior to the virus’s spread.
The mental health impacts of the pandemic are still being felt, with many individuals now adjusting to new ways of working and engaging remotely.
Sun Life data analysis on its mental health claims in Canada, where the global group is headquartered, has shown a 24% spike in drug claims to treat mental disorders from adults under 30 between 2019 and 2021, and a 13% rise in such claims for adults between 30 and 39 years of age. Overall, 16% of Sun Life’s Canadian drug claims in 2021 were for mental disorders.
Coming out of the pandemic, mental health has remained high on the agenda for individual clients and plan sponsors, with the current economic environment and other post-pandemic changes offering up additional challenges for people to navigate. Over half of all disability claims for under 44s are for mental disorders, according to the insurance company’s Designed for Health report.
“It’s an incredibly stressful world today, between COVID and people figuring out the future of work and hybrid work, as well as inflation… and higher interest rates,” said Strain. “We’re seeing from our individual clients and we’re hearing from plan sponsors that they want to help their employees with their mental health and wellness.”
While younger generations look to cope with mental health stresses, their parents’ and grandparents’ needs are also developing.
Baby boomers’ influence as some countries’ most populous generation may be waning in the post-pandemic landscape – in the US, millennials took over as the largest generational demographic chunk in 2019 – but they continue to make up a big slice of the population pie. Caring for this generation as it ages has been identified as a key challenge facing society.
“If you look at anywhere in the world today, there’s a growing need for healthcare and healthcare provision, partially due to the baby boomers getting older and entering into retirement,” said Strain. “As you get older, you need more health care, and you’re seeing stress on the healthcare system; helping our clients manage that and manage their wellness is really important to me.”
How many baby boomers are there?
These shifts have pushed Sun Life to expand its appetite outside traditional life insurance and wealth as it broadens its reach into health and wellness.
“We’re finding unique ways to go through the health journey of clients where we start with being a benefits payer and provider – and we think that that’s a really important piece – into helping with care navigation and helping with wellness, and finally, in some circumstances, actually providing that care,” Strain said.
Sun Life completed its acquisition of PinnacleCare, a US platform that helps individuals with serious medical conditions find care options, in July 2021. Also in the US, Sun Life bought DentaQuest, which has 80 dental practices and is expected to scale up to 125 locations.
Lumino Health, Sun Life’s Canadian care navigation platform, has been used to connecting individuals with practitioners such as physiotherapists since 2020, and the platform is also used to increase health awareness.
Most recently, Sun Life completed its purchase of Dialogue. The deal followed Sun Life’s previous investment in the virtual healthcare and wellbeing platform, which is available to nearly 2.8 million of its members across 50,000 organizations.
These moves are part of a change, which has also seen the group fully embrace digital, that fits into Sun Life’s focus on providing long term solutions and meeting its purpose of “helping our clients achieve lifetime financial security and to live healthier lives,” according to Strain.
“If you had asked me five years ago, certainly 10 years ago, would Sun Life be helping with care navigation and providing care? I would have said, ‘I don’t think so’,” Strain said. “We’ve seen that demand coming from our clients, we’ve seen that need, and we think it’s very important.”