By Simon Thomas, Director, Generali UK Employee Benefits
You’d be hard stretched to miss the shocking national media headlines over recent weeks, revealing the knock-on effect of Covid-19 on cancer diagnosis: the number of urgent referrals having dropped to around 25% of usual levels in England, according to Cancer Research UK.
So, while employers focus on communicating their wellbeing support services to help people cope mentally and physically with the new normal, it’s worth remembering that existing issues haven’t gone away. Employees might also need reminding that GPs - whether local or a virtual service provided by the employer - can still make urgent referrals to specialists or for any tests for anyone worried they might have cancer.
1 in 2 people will get cancer in their lifetime, and Covid-19 won’t change that. What has changed is that people with symptoms are giving health services a wide berth. Also, some GPs are reluctant to risk sending their patients to the local hospital for fear of Covid-19 infection. Cancer Research UK reports that for every week this goes on, over 2,300 cancer cases are likely to be going undiagnosed across the UK.
Dr Kate Bunyan, Chief Medical Officer at Doctor Care Anywhere, comments:“Recent weeks and months have been incredibly worrying for people. And have caused us all to think about how and when we go to the doctor, or reach out to talk about our health. Am I just imagining it? I know the hospitals are full of really sick people, should I bother them? I’m worried I might pick up something if I go to the GP and then pass it on to my family. These are all very valid concerns. But we know that COVID-19 is not the only illness out there. Getting those things seen to and sorted is just as important today as it was before COVID-19...We all know that the sooner a problem is addressed, the easier it is to manage.”
Encourage early access to help
So, for anyone worried they might have cancer, the message from charities and the healthcare sector - public and private - is loud and clear: don’t delay, speak to a GP today. And considering the amount and range of services available to help in this regard, employers have a duty to help amplify this message. In the workplace, this help might include anything from consultancy and diagnostic focused services such as virtual GPs and specialist cancer screening, to preventative services such as health assessments, onsite health stations and even DNA tests.
“Recently DATA-CAN, the Health Care Research Hub (HDR UK) for cancer, has estimated up to 35,000 excess cancer deaths during the next 12 months due to significant reductions in GP referrals, delays in diagnosis and cancellation of cancer treatments such as chemotherapy,” says Professor Gordon Wishart, Chief Medical Officer at Check4Cancer, a private UK cancer screening & diagnostics company, and Visiting Professor of Cancer Surgery at Anglia Ruskin School of Medicine.
“Check4Cancer has managed to continue delivery of face to face consultations in its breast, skin and prostate cancer pathways during lockdown so I would encourage anyone with suspicious cancer symptoms to see their GP, or contact their insurance company, to get referred for investigation as delays in cancer diagnosis can have a big impact on the treatment required, as well as life expectancy.”
Speak to your insurer
If you have group income protection or private healthcare already in place, it’s worth taking a look at what is already embedded in the product before considering standalone wellbeing services. Even where the service you want isn’t included, but you have identified a specific need, it’s worth speaking to your insurer. Some will even consider funding support to help ensure cost isn’t a barrier to access.
For example, Generali’s Wellbeing Investment Matching initiative has seen the insurer partnering with a wide variety of national, accredited wellbeing service providers to help extend access to services. The latest partnership, announced just this month, saw Generali partnering with Bupa, to help extend a range of Bupa’s wellbeing services to its group income protection clients – from occupational health and onsite health stations to Bupa SmartDNA.
Where joint Generali / Bupa clients are concerned, the partnership also provides the potential for key wellbeing aspects of Bupa’s Private Medical Insurance (PMI) programme to be extended in a cost-effective way to whole workforces, where only a proportion are covered by PMI.
And considering between 30-50% of all cancer cases are preventable, according to the World Health Organisation, the extension of services to help support changes in day-to-day lifestyle behaviours, should in theory put individuals in better control of their futures.
Wendy Rose, Head of Strategic Relationships at Bupa, commented: “We offer a range of wellbeing services which are designed to help people get a clearer picture of their current health and wellbeing. Our health assessments have supported eight in 10 people change their lifestyle habits. As we come out of the Covid-19 pandemic this is something which we know is really important to people. As well as the initial health assessment, we provide year-long advice and guidance to make sure people are able to reach their goals.”
Remote GPs in the new normal
Meanwhile, remote GP services have proven a godsend for many during the pandemic. According to the Royal College of General Practitioners, within weeks of the outbreak, 77% of GP consultations were delivered remotely. The report notes there is a need to boost remote GP access, even when the immediate threat of the pandemic has receded.
The impact on business of such a move could be profound. A new report, using findings produced by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) on behalf of Axa PPP healthcare, reveals that UK businesses could have avoided £1.5 billion in lost working time in 2019, if employees opted to use remote GP services instead.
Dr Umang Patel, Clinical Director at Babylon, says thatsince the World Health Organisation (WHO) classified Covid-19 as a pandemic on 11 March, Babylon’s NHS service, Babylon GP at Hand has conducted over 100,000 appointments for patients, of which 90% were digital appointments.
“We’re seeing increased interest in remote consultations from around the world because of Covid-19, and it’s easy to see why,” he adds. “Not only does it help stop the spread of illness between patients congregating at a clinic, but it makes healthcare easily accessible - even during lockdowns. This is particularly helpful for patients who are still isolating or working from home.
“The NHS has always faced challenges when encouraging patients to visit clinics for cancer screenings, this has been further exacerbated by Covid-19. For those who are possibly anxious about visiting a doctor’s office, or are worried that new symptom they’ve developed might be a sign of cancer, digital services mean they are able to be seen quickly from the comfort of their own home.”
Dr Bunyan adds: “Taking care of yourself and those you care about is the best way of managing through these uncertain times; don’t put it off, get those niggles and worries seen to.”