Innovation at the heart of the mental health claims process: Andrew Howard, Chief Commercial Officer, TAL

Andrew Howard

When you think about what the pandemic has done, it’s made people focus on their own health and the health of others. The importance of the role of a life insurer in assisting with health prevention and health support is a real shift that won’t change any time soon.

One of Australasia’s biggest life insurers and a tireless advocate for a better industry approach to mental health, TAL has put customer wellbeing at the core of its operating model.
We spoke with Andrew Howard, Chief Commercial Officer – Group Life & Investments at TAL, to discuss the life insurer’s progressive mental health strategy, its efforts to streamline the claims process and better support mental health claimants, and TAL’s response to emerging technologies and regulations set to radically reshape the insurance sector.

FST Media: Despite the hike in life insurance premiums last year, TAL still managed a very impressive 15.7 per cent growth in annual risk premium inflows, really outpacing its competitors. Firstly, how do you account for this impressive surge? And in this next phase of the Covid crisis, are you anticipating similar growth through 2021?

Howard: First and foremost, one of our fundamental principles at TAL is that Australians should have a choice in how they access life insurance. Over the last 12 months, we’ve worked very, very hard to make sure that we’re strong and sustainable in providing life insurance, whether that be through superannuation funds, through working with advisers and their customers or working with direct-to-customer brands across the spectrum of places that we do provide access.

The industry’s been through a lot of change and continues to go through a lot of change; there’s a lot of merger activity in superannuation funds. We, indeed, also bought Suncorp Life in the last 12 to 24 months and have been integrating that business. And through those partnerships – whether it be super funds or through the acquisition of life insurance businesses or new partnerships with direct-to-customer brands – we’re seeing new opportunities to distribute life insurance that can enable that growth.

Ultimately, we need to continue to invest in what’s most important for us as an insurer, and that’s the claims experience – to be there when our customers need us most.


And that’s the fundamental cornerstone of how try to grow over time, because we want that experience to be great.


FST Media: And how do you feel the Suncorp Life integration process has progressed?

Howard: It’s been a challenging experience, but we’ve been successful because we’ve worked really hard to plan every part of the journey. We’re a large part of the way through what we needed to do to separate from Suncorp and to bring the people, the systems and the processes across to TAL. Whilst we’ve got a little bit of time left on our delivery schedule, we’re well and truly on our way. We’d generally consider it a success, though there’ve been some lessons learnt along the way.


FST Media: TAL has a real focus on mental health. In your recently released Mental Health white paper, you emphasise a whole-of-environment approach. How have TAL’s services evolved to better support customers facing mental health challenges?

Howard: For the industry at large, there is an increasing incidence of mental health conditions leading to claim. We all know that. But as a leader in the life insurance industry ourselves, at TAL we want to lead in the way that we identify, prevent, and support mental health conditions, not only for the individuals themselves, but also to ensure that the life insurance industry is sustainable and can continue to support people with mental health conditions.

We were one of the first life insurers to appoint a head of mental health.


We’ve also established a mental health action group which lets us have regular dialogue with mental health professionals and people with lived experience in mental health conditions, which helps us across the claims, underwriting and product teams to make sure that our products and the way we serve policyholders and claimants is fit for purpose with respect to this emerging set of trends.

The mental health white paper was an important piece for us at TAL. We wanted to let people know that because we’re a life insurer, we see a lot of what goes on in mental health. One of the findings in the white paper was that there is a difficulty for people accessing [mental healthcare] services. There are, it says, 13 psychiatrists for every 100,000 Australians, and 88 psychologists for 100,000 Australians; that’s very low when we compare to other appropriate health professionals serving people with relevant conditions.

We’ve worked hard also to think of ways in which we can help customers or claimants, whether they’re on-claim or after-claim, find access to mental health services. We recently launched a service with Teladoc Health called ‘Mental Health Assist’ which does just that for people with mental health conditions.


FST Media: There is a perception that mental health claimants require a greater burden of proof when lodging claims, making this a less than seamless process for those suffering mental health issues. How is TAL working to streamline the claims process and perhaps leverage digital to facilitate this process?

Howard: And that’s a really important point, first up, [to acknowledge] that people with mental health conditions turn up in life insurance processes differently to other claimants or people being underwritten. Knowing that is to know, first and foremost, that we need to be human about these things.

We’ve worked hard with our claims and underwriting staff to be able to recognise and identify people with mental health conditions and to consider different ways of asking questions so that our experience doesn’t create further issues for the person experiencing a mental health condition.


At the same time, it’s important for all claimants to know that they have confidence about where they’re up to in the claims process, to have speed where we can in decisions and efficiency. It’s about being human first, but we’re also working on tools to give claimants a faster experience.

We’ve got a tool called ‘Claims Assist’, a mobile-delivered claims tool for people to manage and monitor their claims. We’ve also worked on an information hub to help claimants share their experiences so that they understand what they might go through when they’re on-claim or recovering from a claim. And, thirdly, we also try to connect people on-claim with relevant services to maintain their health.


FST Media: We’re seeing more and more new technologies bursting through and really reshaping how insurance is offered, how claims are processed, or even how customers are tracked for their claims – from AI implementations to IoT and sensor tech and advances in predictive analytics. How do you feel these technologies will impact both TAL and the broader insurance industry over the next few years?

Howard: The rise and rise of technology is not something new. That said, for life insurance, there is a chance to really embrace that trend, particularly after Covid-19, where we learnt to use technology to support those who are remote and make them more connected.

In life insurance, not only can we see the use of digital technologies to connect people and to serve better wherever they might be, but we also see the role of artificial intelligence and machine learning in these all-important processes we run in underwriting or claims to make sure that we can give people confidence about decisions that we’re making, that they’re of good quality and, in turn, to give people confidence around these decisions.

But in enabling that journey altogether, at the heart of all of this is data, and life insurers need to get control of our data so that we can feed those processes really, really effectively.


APRA recently spoke about the sustainability of the life insurance industry, and one of the key items they identified is the need for life insurers to have high-quality data and data management practices.


FST Media: What systems do you have in place to ensure the data you’re utilising is both ethical but also maximises the best interests of customers?

Howard: We’ve gone about this from the ground up, because we realised the importance of this journey with respect to data. The fact that the trends aren’t going away means that we need to be top-to-bottom, left-to-right, really good at managing our data.

We’ve established a data governance council and a data and analytics team here at TAL. With these, we’ve taken a first principles approach; we’re working our way through our data to make sure there are standards and definitions across the plethora that we do collect, so we can organise it and access it effectively. That’s a hard job. We’re investing in those enabling technologies that come along with that: that is, a data management platform, but also the technology that allows the safe and secure transmission of that information or data from the life company to partners and their customers and back again. And I really put an emphasis on safe and secure – that’s a critical part of the journey.


FST Media: Looking at the wider insurance sector, what do you see as the main social or tech drivers influencing how life insurance is or will be delivered? And how do you see this playing out in the next two to three years?

Howard: It’s the whole idea that people are now focused on living risks.

When you think about what the pandemic has done, it’s made people focus on their own health and the health of others.

The importance of the role of a life insurer in assisting with health prevention and health support is a real shift that won’t change any time soon.

The second part, which is also in that space of focusing on more living risks, is that Australia now has more people drawing down on the retirement system than putting into it. So, what’s the number one concern for people who are in that pre-retirement or retirement phase, particularly if there are hundreds and thousands of new people in these segments every year? It’s, ‘How do I make sure that the income I have in retirement lasts as long as I do and for the purposes I think I need it for?’ The average retiree, if the retirement age now is 67, will live for another 20 years; that’s a long time to make sure that you live a good life. The role of the insurer in that is something that is an open space and an opportunity, and it’s certainly something that we’re thinking about.

The other thing that we’ve spoken a little bit about in the questions today is the rise and rise of digital enablement. That won’t change, and wherever you have paper in your process, and it’s not adding value with any kind of human contact, then digital enablement is going to be absolutely critical.


FST Media: And how far is TAL along in that transition from paper to a fully digitalised process?

Howard: Every day, every week, every month, every half year, every full year, we’re trying to get better at it. The most important thing, though, is working out where it is going to add the most value to people and make sure that the human part of the process, where it’s key, remains in place. And the other thing to be really clear about is that the way in which people interact using digital services continues to evolve. We need to keep tracking where and how people prefer and what technologies they most like to use when they’re engaging with somebody like a life insurer.


FST Media: It’s said that innovation distinguishes a leader from follow. How do you seek to nurture an innovation-friendly environment that embraces blue-sky thinking and ensures that TAL remains one step ahead of the competition?

Howard: It’s an imperative for us now, and anyone who’s in a leadership position, to have an open mind to new ideas and different ways of seeing how we’ve always done things.

I’m always interested in what people see for the first time when they come into contact with life insurance processes, whether it be the claims process, the underwriting process, or the development of product. When you’ve had a couple of decades of experience like I have, that’s seen as a plus, but it’s also a plus for people to not have had that same amount of experience and come in with fresh eyes and look at things differently. We actively encourage that.

Here at TAL, we have an innovation team that runs innovation sprints, which are a longer process, where questions are posed to groups with a broad range of thinking, but with teams supporting them to question everything in front of them. Earlier this year we had our innovation challenge – we have one annually – focusing on the future of insurance, how to best use health data in the customer’s interest, and how the open banking system might change the way we run our company. But, as with any of these things, it needs to be practical and needs to be scalable.