Telemedicine through the lens of an insurance company – AXA Asia

Gordon Watson, Chief Executive Officer of AXA Asia, recognises that COVID-19 accelerated the rollout of telemedicine and is optimistic about telemedicine’s role in promoting value-based care.

For AXA Asia, telehealth, together with other online services, has been in its long-term pipeline. With the outbreak of COVID-19, its introduction to the market was fast-tracked. Patients restricted with lockdowns as well as fear of contracting the infection if they go to the hospital found telemedicine convenient.

In an interview with Hospital Insights Asia, AXA Asia’s CEO Gordon Watson notes that the rollout of telehealth is “to not only benefit customers but also wider society as part of AXA’s solidarity efforts, driven by [its] commitment to transform from being a payer to a true health partner”.

Acknowledging the need for telehealth in this challenging time, the insurer offers tele-consult across its markets in Asia and integrates both physical and mental health services.

Watson acknowledges that hospitals can be overwhelmed because of the novel infection, thus, patients can find it difficult to get medical advice or even support for routine medical issues. Telemedicine can enter the equation “to alleviate the burden of the stretched healthcare system and divert customers away from overcrowded hospitals”.

Watson also highlights that telehealth can promote value-based care as patients can have improved access to care through leveraging mobile technologies at a relatively low cost. Likewise, telemedicine benefits both patients and healthcare providers as it is a cheaper and more efficient alternative.

As such, AXA Asia has pledged to offer 5 million free teleconsultation services to customers and even non-customers in the region. Besides leveraging its in-house capabilities, AXA has partnered with service providers to address the unique demands of patients across Asia. 

In China, AXA works with Tencent Trusted Doctors to provide 24/7 online medical consultations through a platform supported by 450,000 physicians and psychologists. Meanwhile, in Japan, policyholders can avail telemedicine consults through T-PEC and DoctorsMe.

In Indonesia, AXA partners with Halodoc to support the country’s large population in view of its lack of healthcare facilities. Over the past few months, Halodoc has seen a surge in usage. AXA has also made a free teleconsultation program available to more than 2.6 million existing customers, as well as new ones, for a limited time period in Indonesia.

Similarly, all life and select general insurance customers of AXA in the Philippines have been given free teleconsultation services through MyPocketDoctor, which as of date has already served around 750,000 clients. 

Krungthai-AXA Life also provides teleconsultations for customers in Thailand through its hospital partners, Bangkok Dusit Medical Services and Praram 9 Hospital. 

In Hong Kong, AXA utilised its nurse hotline service launched in 2019 to extend psychological support to COVID-19 patients.

Apart from giving patients a chance to receive care remotely, AXA also understands the importance of providing holistic support to customers. In its telehealth offerings, the company incorporates free mental wellness counselling in China and Indonesia. In Hong Kong, AXA launched its ‘Mind Health Programme’ in January, which is Hong Kong’s first employee benefits cover to provide comprehensive mental health support.

Furthermore, AXA Asia has tapped global expertise from Microsoft’s Azure-bot framework, LUIS Natural Language Processing engine, HealthKeeper, and Sensely to develop Emma, an app envisioned to act as a “customer’s digital health partner”. Emma is already used by customers in Hong Kong and the Philippines, but will soon be introduced to Japan and China as well.

Even though technology is no longer an issue at this day and age for telehealth to be widely used, regulation and cybersecurity issues pose a challenge for its continuous adoption.

For instance, there are no electronic prescriptions in Hong Kong. Therefore, even if patients use teleconsultation services, they still need to go to the physical clinic to get the prescription and medication. While a few healthcare organisations in the city have a license to courier medication to patients, it is observed that telehealth still “remains complementary to traditional clinic visits”.

In other countries, AXA Asia has observed a more relaxed regulatory environment for telemedicine. Japan and South Korea, for example, had a conservative stance on telehealth. But with the outbreak of COVID-19, these countries had encouraged telemedicine services to cater to patients. Similarly, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines have encouraged the use of teleconsultation services during the pandemic.

With regard to the safety of patient data, Watson acknowledges how “big data not only brings opportunities for AXA to provide value-added personalised products and services, but also the overarching responsibility to safeguard such data”. Thus, the company invests heavily on data security and protection. When forging partnerships with third-party providers, AXA ensures that data privacy officers are largely involved. It also has ongoing projects and technology updates to prevent potential breaches. Likewise, AXA Research Fund supports academic research to further understand data privacy issues and therefore better protect its customers.

“The telemedicine market worldwide is growing and is expected to reach $130 billion by 2025,” says Watson. Over time, the industry will mature and with it comes an improved quality that can significantly address the three components of the ‘iron triangle’ of healthcare: access, cost, and quality. That being the case, Watson is confident that moving to value-based care can be hastened with telehealth.