Doctors on Call

If it wasn’t clear before, it is now. The coronavirus pandemic and the consequent lockdowns across the world have really hit home the importance of digitalization.

Working from home, virtual meetings and lectures, online shopping, video calls to catch up with family and friends...a myriad of digital services are enabling companies and individuals to keep the show going during the extended global crisis.

As Covid-19 dominates the headlines, a victim of collateral damage is patients with chronic illnesses or non-serious ailments. With medical professionals and systems under severe stress, these patients are struggling to get care across nations. Enter telehealth - the distribution of healthcare and related services and information using digital communication technologies – which has the potential to ease the burden on the healthcare system.

Other than providing consultation and support to patients, telehealth can help prevent the spread of the virus by reducing the number of people visiting breeding grounds such as clinics and hospitals. 

What is telehealth?

Also called ‘telemedicine’ sometimes, telehealth allows patients and even medical workers to access consultation, care, reminders, education, intervention, monitoring and remote admissions using digital tools.

Although often used interchangeably, telehealth and telemedicine vary somewhat in their scope. While telemedicine offers clinical services such as remote diagnosis and monitoring, telehealth goes a step further by also including non-clinical services such as education and training.

The concept has been around for two decades and its adoption is slowly increasing as internet infrastructure improves and people become more comfortable with digital communication. 

At Allianz, several entities have embedded telehealth and similar services in their basket of offerings. Leading the brigade is Medi24, a Switzerland-based telehealth subsidiary of Allianz Partners. Founded in 1999, Medi24 has 25 doctors and 80 nurses offering 24/7 medical services in English, German, Italian and French. More than 4.6 million people have access to Medi24 via their healthcare providers. Among them are policyholders of Allianz Privatkrankenversicherung (APKV) in Germany. They can access the service via the Doc On Call feature in their health insurance app.

Other than general medical advice and instructions for self-care, Medi24 offers consultation on serious medical conditions as well as emergency and office phone lines for doctor and hospital networks.

Acting as the product hub and competence center for telehealth and telemedicine in the Allianz group, Medi24 has handled 5.1 million nurse triages since its inception. It handles up to 6,000 calls daily, with 94 percent of customers reporting that they were satisfied or very satisfied with the service.

For corona queries, Medi24 has set up a special hotline. The caller is directed to a nurse, who determines if the case should be handled by a doctor online or a physical intervention is required - often, self-care is sufficient. A digital symptom checker on its website enables people to gauge if they indeed are infected. As many as 40,000 users have visited the checker in the recent past.

Medi24 CEO Lebrecht Gerber says, “We’ve been helping so many customers throughout our existence. But times like these show people are open to innovations in health services. The new Corona Check service, which we quickly added, enhanced our value proposition and proved that people are ready for ‘digital’.”

allianz telehealth telemedicine teleconsultation services

The subsidiary is exploring the use of Artificial Intelligence-based symptom checkers for sorting patients more efficiently, wearables and diagnostics to better understand the needs of patients and steer them to their nearest healthcare facilities.

Over the past month, Medi24 has handled over 70,000 calls, up 34 percent from a year ago. Of these, 30,000 calls were related to coronavirus. The company has done nearly 40,000 digital Covid-19 assessment. About 60 percent of them were resolved through the medical triage and self-treatment was recommended to patients. In short, around 40,000 visits to a doctor’s office were prevented!

Telehealth offers many advantages to both patients and medical workers. Today, the medical industry is facing many challenges: demographic changes such as an aging population in many geographies, limited availability of doctors in rural areas, crowded waiting rooms, increasing health expenses, and a demand from patients for more convenience and digital offerings.

Telehealth allows patients to avail themselves of services right from their living rooms instead of waiting rooms, it gives round-the-clock access to care, and also provide immediate medical help in the form of e-prescriptions. The language barrier can also be overcome for people like expats and travelers, who may need assistance in unfamiliar surroundings. 

With extended isolation, mental health is slowly coming into focus. Those suffering from emotional and mental distress can easily talk to professionals in a timely manner through telehealth. 

A global need

Allianz Partners is in the process of integrating telehealth and telemedicine services into its operations worldwide. For example, Allianz Partners in France, Spain and Italy offers a teleconsultation service where patients can choose to connect with doctors via an app at a desired time. Besides initial diagnosis, the doctors provide prescriptions and even referral to specialists if required.

Yael Ichay, a doctor who manages the Allianz Partners teleconsultation program in France, says such sessions have shown a six-fold jump in March compared with February as the virus took hold. “Nearly 30 percent of the cases concerned coronavirus,” she adds. Most of the calls were from France but some calls also came from the U.S. and the UK. “Other than finding doctors easily at this crucial time, patients also saw the benefit of the 24/7 service. Some people might use it in the future even after the crisis ends,” she says.

Allianz Partners has tied up with the well-known Albert Einstein hospital in Brazil for teleconsultation, while in Australia, it uses provider Doctors On Demand for such services.

Similar initiatives are being explored in operations across the globe, from Europe to Asia-Pacific. 

allianz telehealth telemedicine teleconsultation services

“Telehealth can improve access to care for millions, even billions,” says Milan Kingreen, who internationalizes telehealth at Allianz Partners as the Head of Digital Access to Care Initiative at Medi24. “This pandemic has shown that healthcare systems across the world – rich or poor - are vulnerable to sudden shocks. Wider adoption of such concepts could go a long way in opening new pathways to healthcare, especially in regions with limited resources.”

There are other initiatives across the Allianz Group in the same space. Allianz X, the group’s digital investment unit, has invested in leading U.S.-based telehealth platform American Well as well as in health services providers BIMA and Halodoc. “Some of our portfolio companies are proving that telehealth presents enormous potential in managing and mitigating such crises,” says Allianz X CEO Nazim Cetin. “For example, AmWell has launched a U.S.-wide program to ensure telehealth is used as the first line of defense against Covid-19. Likewise, BIMA has partnered with the Pakistani government to provide free coronavirus-related telehealth services to the public.”

As more and more people warm up to the idea of digital healthcare, the opportunities in the field are set to grow. Allianz Digital Health (ADH), headed by Birgit Koenig, aims to modernize and digitalize Allianz’s health entities and third-party insurances globally. Currently, ADH is working with the app Vivy to develop a global health service platform that will bring together the individual solutions being used in the group’s different entities. 

Every crisis the world has faced has changed behaviors, in many cases, for the better. What behaviors the coronavirus pandemic will change, will become clearer once the threat has subsided – hopefully, sooner than feared. 

The Allianz Group is one of the world's leading insurers and asset managers with more than 100 million retail and corporate customers in more than 70 countries. Allianz customers benefit from a broad range of personal and corporate insurance services, ranging from property, life and health insurance to assistance services to credit insurance and global business insurance. Allianz is one of the world’s largest investors, managing around 740 billion euros on behalf of its insurance customers. Furthermore, our asset managers PIMCO and Allianz Global Investors manage almost 1.6 trillion euros of third-party assets. Thanks to our systematic integration of ecological and social criteria in our business processes and investment decisions, we hold the leading position for insurers in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. In 2019, over 147,000 employees achieved total revenues of 142 billion euros and an operating profit of 11.9 billion euros for the group.

These assessments are, as always, subject to the disclaimer provided below.

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Flavia Genillard
Allianz SE
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