Technology Tool Claims To Predict Disease Onset And Mortality

By Ara C. Trembly

Are you more or less likely than the average person to fall victim to a life-threatening disease or to die within the next 10 years?

Many of us would like to know the answer to that question–and life insurers, in particular, would love to know.

The developers of a new statistical technology believe they have the answers in the form of a tool that medical professionals and life insurers can use to rate risks.

BioSignia Inc., a health care information technology firm based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., says it has developed a tool–called Mortality Assessment Technology (MAT)–that can “improve the discriminating power, precision and efficiency of underwriting analysis.”

According to Scott Van Slyck, director of business development, life insurance, for BioSignia, the technology is designed for use by life insurance underwriters in evaluating “unimpaired” cases.

“BioSignia has developed a novel statistical technology to detect the subtle changes in physiology that precede disease onset,” the company says. The tool depends on what BioSignia calls Synthesis Analysis, a patented statistical method that provides disease prediction equations by combining research findings on each risk factor from disparate studies in medical literature.

Van Slyck says the technology predicts the probability of onset of chronic diseases “when the applicant appears to be healthy.” Asked how far in advance of onset the predictions can be made, he notes that, “in general,” it can be up to 10 years.

The company says it has developed disease prediction models for coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and osteoporosis.

These conditions constitute “an overwhelming majority of the main causes of death in the U.S., and an even larger percentage of premature death,” according to the company.

Minimum input requirements include an individuals age, height, weight, gender, systolic blood pressure and a routine blood profile, the company explains. Among the biomarkers used to evaluate risk of future diseases are cholesterol, triglyceride and glucose levels, says Van Slyck.

Other factors used include family history of the stated conditions, smoking habits and, for women, number of births, age at menopause and hormone replacement therapy usage, says BioSignia.

MAT involves two basic steps, BioSignia notes. First, there is a process of calculating multiple disease or condition prediction equations. The results are probabilities of onset for each specific disease or condition within a specific period of time.

Second, these disease-specific probabilities are converted into a predicted mortality ratio (PMR). The PMR is a weighted average of mortality ratios that can be used to predict the future mortality for “subjects who do not show overt clinical impairment,” the company adds.

While the MAT has been available from BioSignia to health care professionals in the form of a product called Know Your Number for more than two years, the life insurance version of the technology is about nine months old, says Van Slyck.

Doctors and other health professionals pay a fee for the service, which is “gaining a lot of momentum,” states Van Slyck. “A lot of self-insured employees are interested, because it decreases their risks and their costs.”

According to BioSignia, MAT has been shown to speed up the underwriting process. Applying the technology to a known set of life insurance data, the company says that “MAT accurately predicted mortality and yielded better mortality risk discrimination power than the conventional method.”

When the company applied its technology to the data and compared the predictions side by side, MAT was able to reduce actual to expected mortality ratios by 11%, Van Slyck claims. “Thats a big number to have in that group.”

BioSignia cites industry studies indicating that an average life insurance case in the U.S. takes three days for an underwriting decision once all data have been collected. In contrast, the company notes, “MAT can make this decision in real time, thus reducing the sales cycle by at least three days.”

Van Slyck says MAT will allow life insurers to increase their business and reduce mortality at the same time. This could lead to lower reinsurance rates, which would allow carriers to offer lower rates to insurers, he suggests.

In April, BioSignia and St. Louis-based Reinsurance Group of America announced a strategic partnership to market MAT jointly to the life insurance industry. Under the agreement, the two will offer MAT to RGAs clients, “enabling them to more accurately stratify risk classes.”

While the companies could point to no current users at this writing, Van Slyck says he is confident there will be “two or three users in the next six months.”

“It is ironic that while information technology solutions have been widely adopted in most other industries, current life underwriting is still largely a paper-driven system,” says BioSignia on its Web site. “Underwriters are flipping through paper files and turning the pages of thick underwriting manuals.

“Underwriting rules remain a mixture of subjective judgment and numerical rating systems (debit/credit),” the site continues. “Subjective judgment by its nature produces inconsistencies, no matter how experienced the underwriter, and simple debit/credit algorithms cannot optimally reflect the complexity of the associations between risk factors and mortality outcomes.

“The future of underwriting,” the site concludes, “is in technology that can offer more consistency and accuracy in risk classification and subsequently lead to improved profits.”

Cost of the Web-delivered service–the databases reside on BioSignias systems–is on a per-applicant basis and is “highly dependent on volume,” says Van Slyck. “People [who sign up] now will have a competitive advantage because theyre taking the early leap.”

At the moment, rates run between $12 and $16 per life insurance applicant, Van Slyck notes. Prepayment discounts are also available.

The cost of MAT, he adds, will be “way offset by possible lower reinsurance rates, reduced mortality and increased underwriting efficiencies.”

MAT is “great for the cookie cutter typical life insurance applicant,” says Van Slyck. In addition, it allows underwriters to spend more time on more complicated cases, making better use of their talents.

BioSignia adds that life carriers need not modify their existing computer systems to utilize MAT, noting that “the MAT system can be seamlessly integrated into the underwriting process.”

The company says MAT can be integrated with in-house databases and underwriting applications via “commonly used industry standard electronic data interfaces.”

Further details are available at www.biosignia.com.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, July 7, 2003. Copyright 2003 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved. Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.