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Life Health > Health Insurance

Genomes, nanobots and wearable tech: What’s next will change insurance forever

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Insurance rates have always been defined by statistical averages. It’s not sexy, but it works – actuaries use massive amounts of data to predict who will cost more, and thus pay more. But what happens when we have the ability to customize those predictions on an individual level?

What happens when we not only identify a risk, but remove it? The combination of big data, wearable tech, and nanotechnology are going to revolutionize our industry because they’re already revolutionizing health care. If this sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, think again — it’s actually already happening.

Wearable tech: The future is now

It sounds simple: Slip a device on your wrist and it’ll tell you how many steps you’ve taken, how many calories you’ve burned, or who posted to your Facebook wall. But we’ve only begun to tap the potential of wearable tech. In March of 2014, Google unveiled Android Wear, an operating system built specifically for wearable tech.

More than 90 million wearable-tech devices (including Google Glass, Samsung’s Gear S smartwatch, the Nike FuelBand and Fitbit Flex) shipped in 2014, according to ABI Research. By 2017, they predict the sports and health industries will use nearly 170 million of these devices. By 2018, they predict the “smart glass” industry will be worth $6 billion.

In the near future, however, these devices will do more than calculate steps taken and calories burned. Once algorithms improve, they’ll not only collect but analyze patterns in our activities, giving them the ability to tell us, “Hey, get some exercise — your endorphin level could use a boost,” or “You haven’t had REM sleep in 18 hours. Turn off Netflix now.”

Because wearable tech can have an immediate effect on our behavior, it can also directly impact the risk we represent to an insurer. If you’ve saved on your car insurance with programs like Progressive’s Snapshot or Allstate’s DriveWise, your insurer used the same technology to monitor your driving that your Fitbit uses to monitor you. And it’s only the beginning of what’s on the horizon.

A new underwriting model

It used to be impossible to price insurance based on your particular lifestyle, health or habits — but technology has given us the solution, at least for car insurance. How long before health and life insurance follow? The day is coming when the guesswork involved in evaluating factors regarding a consumer’s specific health risk is virtually eliminated.

There are currently a small handful of DNA profiling companies. The most well-known is a Silicon Valley startup called 23andMe, which provides raw genetic data based on a simple saliva swab. Although FDA regulations have stopped them from providing a detailed report of your risk factors for 240 health conditions (including the BRCA gene mutation linked to breast cancer), the technology clearly exists — and was provided to the company’s early subscribers.

Co-founded by Anne Wojcicki, wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, the goal of 23andMe is to give people more control over their health. It’s impossible to separate insurance from that goal. Consider the fact that when Sergey Brin took the test, they discovered he had the LRRK2 gene associated with Parkinson’s disease. How would a discovery like that change your client’s mind about the need for life insurance? How would it change an underwriter’s view of that client?

Another big change is on the underwriting horizon. America’s youngest female billionaire, Elizabeth Holmes, is the founder and CEO of a company called Theranos. She created a way to run hundreds of medical tests using a single drop of blood, from cholesterol checks to complex genetic analyses. The tests are available at select Walgreens in California and Arizona and will soon be rolled out nationwide. The cost? At least 50 percent less than the standard Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates.

A cholesterol test costs $2.99. A basic metabolic panel costs $5.82. Want to test for a particular cancer antigen? It’ll only cost $14.31. Imagine a “snapshot”-style discount being available to life insurance shoppers for submitting periodic test results that prove their blood pressure, diabetes or cholesterol is under control.

These tests serve multiple purposes. In addition to giving the average consumer more information than they’ve ever had about their own health, the medical and scientific communities are about to be flooded with more data than they’ve ever had about the health of the nation as a whole. That data is going to reshape the field of actuarial science and underwriting as we know it.

Could the day come when underwriting involves scrutiny of a proposed insured’s genome? Could a genome test become standard operating procedure instead of the life insurance medical exam?

Right now, a healthy 30-year-old will pay a lower rate than a healthy 50-year-old, based on age alone. What if, after genetic profiling, the 50-year-old looks like the better bet to an underwriter because of a cancer gene in the 30-year-old’s genome?

Risk management vs. risk elimination

Of course, not all risk factors underwriters assess are mapped out in our genomes — we still have to contend with environmentally-based risk factors. But what if technology could identify and fix these, too?

From diabetes management to cancer detection, nanotechnology and wearable tech will make our lives longer and healthier. For example, the Google X Lab has partnered with Novartis to design contact lenses that monitor glucose levels in the wearer’s tears and send that information to a phone or tablet. What if that information were also sent to an insurer? What if that information were compiled in a national database used to track effective ways to monitor and control diabetes?

Another Google X project involves using nanotechnology to detect cancer inside the body. Nanoparticles, ingested through a pill, will travel through the bloodstream, detecting abnormalities that indicate cancer or heart disease, transmitting data to — you guessed it — a wearable-tech device. Imagine using nanoparticles as delivery devices for antibodies, radiation therapy or chemotherapy, ridding the body of diseased or cancerous cells before they become life-threatening.

Underwriting — and the life insurance industry — would change forever.


Our role in personalized insurance

There’s no doubt about it — technology is going to help humans live longer, healthier lives. It’s also going to produce more data than our brains are capable of synthesizing. The more data we produce, however, the better we can pinpoint risk, find solutions, and monitor results. The future of Big Data is in personalizing insurance, a hurdle our industry hasn’t been able to cross until now.

The question we need to ask is what personalized insurance means to us, to our clients and to the industry at large. Will genome mapping become an underwriting requirement?

Will effective cancer detection and treatment lower insurance prices as longevity increases? Will we be able to not only identify but replace defective genes and organs (perhaps even with 3-D printing)? Will consumers be able to buy life insurance from a superstore simply by submitting a personalized genome report?

Ray Kurzweil, a world-renowned scientist and inventor, predicts that in 5-10 years, our search engines will proactively tell us about new research that’s relevant to our individual health issues. He predicts that nanobots will connect our brains to a synthetic neocortex in the digital cloud, giving us access to a billion more pattern recognizers than currently exist in the human brain.

If this happens, could underwriting — and the process of buying insurance — be an entirely digital process? Plug into the cloud, upload health data from your living, breathing body and get an instant rate? Accept or decline at the moment of offer? If everything is automated, are there any salespeople or underwriters left?

We don’t know.

But it’s going to be an exciting ride as we find out.

See also:

Panel urges industry to innovate at NAILBA 33

Why big data is more important than you think for agent & broker success

What’s driving tech investment decisions for agents and brokers?


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