A line chart showing that the number of all deaths caused by COVID-19 and similar illnesses as a percentage of all deaths is just a little over the usual flu epidemic threshold. (Credit: CDC)

Across industries, companies have acted and adapted quickly to meet customers’ needs during COVID-19. Ours is no exception.

The life insurance industry was already undergoing a transformation before COVID-19 hit, but the pandemic created a paradox that underscored the need to accelerate that transformation. While there was suddenly unprecedented demand for life insurance, there were also unprecedented challenges to meeting that demand.

The pandemic also cast light on trends that are likely to fuel our future trajectory. COVID-19 is reinforcing the important role life insurance companies can and should play in society and the value we can offer our customers. More importantly, it has highlighted what we must do to continue to deliver on our commitments in a meaningful and relevant way.

In April, Aite Group reported that mortality claims in the US resulting from COVID-19-related deaths this year could range from $4.8 billion to $7.2 billion.

(Related: COVID-19 Might Have Caused $2 Billion in U.S. Life Claims So Far)

That is a staggering figure, but more telling than the dollar amount are the people and families behind those claims. At its core, life insurance is personal. In several cases in recent months, the individual who passed away had been a John Hancock customer for 80 years. We have also seen spouses pass just days apart from one another. Those are the moments that give us pause. A claim is not just as a policy number or a death benefit amount, but a person with a unique story. Our job is to process claims quickly and efficiently, without losing sight of the bigger, human picture. The pandemic did not change this, but it did bring it into sharper focus. We need to be there for our customers and their families — real people with real challenges — and fulfill promises we made to them, sometimes decades ago.

While the claims remind us of our essential purpose of fulfilling promises made to customers long ago, this environment also reminds us of the need to serve prospective clients better so that more people can get the valuable protection that comes with life insurance. As people are suddenly much more mindful of their own mortality, they are starting to think, ‘How prepared am I? Would my loved ones be protected if something were to happen to me?’ COVID-19 has underscored the value of life insurance, but the resulting demand only proved that we, as an industry, have work to do. More people want life insurance, but earlier this year we struggled to deliver, handicapped by our own design and social distancing.

Long before COVID-19, we were working hard to change the life insurance sales process — it’s a lengthy, cumbersome one that involves labs, doctor’s visits, documentation and in-person meetings. The pandemic made all those steps impractical, if not impossible. Fortunately, we had already made significant strides toward transforming the buying process in terms of investing in technology and growing our access to electronic health records (EHR) when social distancing became the norm. In some ways the pandemic accelerated our efforts and we have been able to rise to meet the demand. We’ve expanded existing digital capabilities, leveraged electronic signatures, and harnessed new ways to gather pertinent health data. It’s working. The new challenge will be to keep the transformation momentum going when we are able to return to some of our previous ways.

While we are always mindful of the tragedy this pandemic caused for individuals, families and communities, moving forward we see opportunity to drive meaningful change within our industry and beyond. First, social distancing has impelled the adoption of digital technology among carriers, distributors and consumers. During the pandemic it was out of necessity, otherwise business simply would have halted. But really, digital adoption in life insurance is a reflection of larger macro trends. We need to meet the modern consumer where they are, and in an age when you can get anything from groceries to a mortgage online, the life insurance purchase experience needs to be digital, fast and convenient.

By collaborating with like-minded distribution partners and innovative technology companies, we have the power to advance the life insurance transformation by radically simplifying the purchasing process and significantly reducing the time from application to issue. We recently entered into a strategic collaboration with Human API, a leading health data platform, to offer a simple, digital way for consumers to share access to their EHR in real time. Now an exchange that used to take days, possibly even weeks, can happen in seconds. This is just one example of the way our industry can build a simple and streamlined buying experience that puts consumers in control of their personal information and their transactions.

A second positive trend we are seeing emerge is that people are becoming more cognizant of their baseline health and how that relates to their risks in a health emergency. Some of the earliest and most consistent data related to COVID-19 spoke to an individual’s baseline heath prior to infection and their ultimate outcome. Overwhelmingly, the healthier someone was to begin with, the greater their chance of survival and the quicker their recovery. That trend is amplified when it comes to people with pre-existing health conditions. For example, emerging data shows that people living with diabetes with blood glucose levels in a healthy range have a 1% fatality rate from COVID-19, compared to an 11% fatality rate for those whose levels are outside a healthy range.

This reaffirms our belief that life insurance has a role to play in helping its customers live longer, healthier lives. Not only do people want the protection a life insurance policy can offer, but they want tools, resources and incentives to make small changes every day that can have a lasting impact on their long-term health. We made that belief a fundamental tenet of our business more than five years ago with the launch of John Hancock Vitality. Last year, we took that commitment one step further with John Hancock Aspire, the first and only life insurance for people living with diabetes. John Hancock Vitality and Aspire are the first steps, and though still young, the programs are showing promising results. As of June 2020, 47% of John Hancock Vitality members reported a drop in their BMI since they joined the program. We look forward to finding new ways to provide consumers with life insurance solutions that support their financial, physical and mental well-being, as well as contribute to better overall health outcomes.

Lastly, COVID thrust us into a world where telehealth went from emerging to mainstream. With the Centers for Disease Control touting the benefits of telehealth services to curb the spread of COVID-19, states scrambled to broaden their telehealth policies, even if only temporarily. Suddenly everyone from the family pediatrician to an orthopedic surgeon was just a virtual visit away. It makes sense in a pandemic and the recent widespread adoption is likely an indicator that telehealth is not going to fade with the virus. We were already engaged with partners who could offer our Aspire customers virtual support, and we only see expanding that kind of access to more customers as we build a modern toolkit of relevant resources.

There is no doubt that COVID-19 has changed our world and our industry. It’s challenged all of us in ways we never thought possible just a few months ago. Our resiliency will be defined by how we take the lessons we’ve learned and turn them into new practices that create meaningful change not just in how we do business, but how we position ourselves in the greater health ecosystem. The opportunity is exciting but let us not lose focus on what’s most important. Life insurance is not about policies sold; it’s about people served  —  our existing customers and our prospective customers. Let stories we’ve heard during this trying time motivate us to create personalized, engaging solutions that can make a tangible impact on our customers’ lives today, tomorrow and 80 years from now.

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Brooks Tingle (Credit: John Hancock) Brooks Tingle is the president and chief executive officer of John Hancock Insurance.