Recharge for better employee wellbeing

Sovereign is proud to now be part of the AIA Australia family. With this our employees now enjoy some fantastic benefits including four Recharge Days per year. Our people can take one day a quarter in addition to annual and sick leave, giving time to take a break and relax, spoil themselves, spend time with friends and family or boost their mental or physical wellbeing. Here, our Chief Customer Officer Sharron Botica shares how she likes to spend her recharge days…

“Since the acquisition of Sovereign by AIA in July it has been very busy for many of our people (leading up to the date of sale and now as we work to bring our two companies together).  Often companies can take an approach of working employees so hard that performance issues and sickness can hit hard. But not at AIA and Sovereign.  One of the new benefits available to our team are four ‘recharge’ days per year.

“As an Executive, it’s really important to me that I role model wellbeing. For my first Recharge Day I put the phone on airplane mode, added an out of office to my emails that said I was on my Recharge Day and wouldn’t be replying to emails and had a great day with a massage, coffee and finished with wine and dinner with friends.  Personally perfect for me to recharge!

“Companies need to find new ways to support employee wellbeing, at AIA and Sovereign we’re on a mission to help our customers and the community live longer healthier lives. It’s always important to start at home with your employee wellbeing.  It’s a big investment but we reckon we’ll reap the rewards with improved productivity and employee engagement.”

For more information about AIA Groups acquisition of Sovereign, visit

Our proud, yet troubled, public health system



I, like many New Zealanders, feel proud and very fortunate to have a universal tax funded healthcare system that means kiwis can largely access healthcare without having to pay for it directly. But the reality is that this care must be paid for by someone and as a country we are currently failing to adequately fund our health system.

Health funding, at 21% of government expenditure, is the second highest category of crown expenses and at over $16B spent in the year ending 30 June 2017 is the equivalent of 6% of New Zealand’s GDP. While this may appear to be a significant investment, New Zealand funds less healthcare per capita than a number of OECD nations including Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and most of Scandinavia.

Given the finite level of funding available it is unsurprising that District Health Boards (DHBs) and organisations such as Pharmac need to make difficult funding choices to work within the constraints that are presented to them. Recent examples from many DHBs highlight significant infrastructure, equipment failure and budgetary issues, reportedly driven by chronic underfunding.

It’s easy to get lost in the blame game as the previous and current governments attempt to deflect attention across the aisle. The reality is this is a longstanding issue fuelled by the system’s complexity and our prevailing ideology regarding “free healthcare”.

Currently New Zealand has 20 DHBs servicing a population of a little less than 5 million people. I question along with others, whether this number of DHBs is necessary. Most use different systems and processes leading to inconsistencies in treatment at a national level and a poor experience for patients who move between DHBs. Reducing this complexity and centralising more services would go a long way towards improving outcomes and relieving budgetary pressure.

Additionally it is time we as a country acknowledged the greater role the private health sector could play in relieving some of the burden. The private health sector performs particularly well in the area of elective surgery, one where the public system consistently struggles, and is constantly building further capacity to deliver more services.

Private health insurance plays a key role in supporting the wider private health sector and helps avoid the constraints represented by finite government funding. It is a way that those who choose to (and can afford to) can take more responsibility for their own healthcare needs. My parents live within the catchment area for Counties Manukau DHB and I am thankful they have retained their health insurance. If they do require non-emergency healthcare at least they won’t receive their care in buildings of “high concern“.

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Mindfulness: Where to start?

tim-goedhart-334149 mindfulness

Mindfulness is all about focusing on the present rather than worrying about the past or future. It’s a tool that you can use to manage the busy nature of modern life, increase your productivity and improve overall wellbeing.

It can be hard to know where to start with the practice of mindfulness, so we teamed up with mindfulness trainer Maya Nova to create eight short videos that can help anyone experience the benefits of mindfulness immediately.

Episode 1: Give rise to happiness Mindfulness can be as simple as looking outside and being aware of your surroundings. Watch now 
Episode 2: Our bodies are nature Quick reminder: Our bodies are nature. Watch now
Episode  3: Thoughts are just thoughts We have a tendency to believe all thoughts as facts. Discover the importance of pausing and asking yourself ‘Is this thought true?’. Watch now
Episode  4: Continual partial attention Lacking focus? You may be at risk of continuous partial attention. Watch now.
Episode  5: Complex problems, simple solutions This simple analogy may help you overcome obstacles. Watch now.
Episode 6: Existing in the moment Exist in the moment so you don’t miss out on real life. Watch now
Episode 7: Permission to be happy Time to check in with yourself and discover what makes you happy. Watch now.
Episode 8: Meditation for beginners Try this guided meditation for beginners. Watch now


Insurance for the greater good

New Zealanders often take pride in our notable rankings on the world stage, whether it be our privileged political freedom, our happiness, sporting achievements, low levels of corruption or topping the World Bank Group’s ‘ease of doing business index’ two years running.

While these rankings shine a positive light on our small and nimble country, we are not performing as well when it comes to insurance. In fact, according to OECD calculations, New Zealand is amongst the most underinsured countries in the world.

We have an aging population, and with more and more people relying on our public health system, the burden on hospital waiting lists and welfare services will continue to grow.

Insurance plays a critical role in reducing this burden, a societal contribution that I would really like better understood. Last year Sovereign paid out more than $350 million in claims, including more than $11.2 million in claims for mental health related conditions. While we’re proud of the role we play in our community, imagine if the number of our customers – and therefore, claims – could double, or even triple. That would take huge pressure off the public health system and free up waiting lists and medical resources for those who really need them.

So why are New Zealanders so reluctant to cover themselves and their families for the worst that might happen? There are a number of reasons, and various ways the industry and other business leaders can help move the dial.

For starters, many people don’t fully understand how insurance works or why they need it. Insurance products can be complex – that’s why we are doing everything we can to simplify the way we communicate our products, creating digital tools for our advisers and connect with new customers via social media. We’re challenging the way things have always been done.

Financial advisers also play an important role in providing advice and support to people as well as helping their clients through the claims process. This personal, tailored service helps to build consumer trust in the industry and ensures families have the right level of cover for their needs.

Cost can also be a barrier when considering insurance, which is why we have a range of products and options to make it affordable. The reality is that insurance can protect your greatest asset, the ability to earn, if you are unable to work due to illness or injury. It also gives you access to the latest proven medical technology quickly and makes sure your loved ones are cared for after you’re gone.

I recently visited several of our customers who have made a claim, and they all told me how important it’s been having their finances taken care of while they undergo treatment and recover from illness and injury. We come into our customer’s lives during the most stressful and traumatic events, and it makes me incredibly proud to hear about the difference we’ve made to them and their families.

I believe all businesses can have a positive influence on their employees’ financial wellbeing and assist them in planning for the unexpected, whether it’s through education or access to group insurance schemes. This is the challenge that lies before the whole of New Zealand and we are certainly going to play our part to see that this goal is realised. I encourage other businesses to do the same.

There is a peace of mind in knowing that your loved ones are taken care of no matter what. It’s a level of security that I wish for more Kiwi families.

Originally published in The National Business Review.

Does private health insurance help or hinder New Zealand’s health system?

Recently I was asked whether private health insurance helps or hinders the public health system and my immediate reaction was “of course it helps the public system by….!”

But putting that initial gut reaction aside, I put myself into the shoes of those working in the public sector and started to question whether we do in fact encourage top surgeons to move out of the public sector. Does the presence of the private sector contribute to further inequities in health outcomes?

It is generally accepted that surgeons are paid more in the private sector than in public, and it could be argued this disparity could be discouraging surgeons from working in the public sector. However, what we are really seeing is that most surgeons working in a private setting also continue to work in the public sector. Arguably the higher pay rates they can command in the private sector subsidises their public earnings, thereby keeping world class surgeons here in this country.

Retaining quality surgeons in both the private and public sectors should be a key priority for maintaining the high standards of healthcare in this country and is a way that private health insurance can support the public health system.

Private health insurance contributes more than a billion dollars to the health sector annually and this money is often used by private sector providers to partially fund the introduction of emerging technologies such as PET scanning, robotically assisted surgeries, and development of facilities to manufacture radioactive isotopes used in diagnostic imaging across both the private and public health sectors.

New Zealand’s two tiered health system does introduce overall inequities where some people are able to afford a wider range of health services than others. However, health insurance can also help to reduce inequitable outcomes by encouraging those who can afford it, to take greater responsibility for their own health needs. By paying for around half of all elective surgical procedures in New Zealand, the private sector frees up public funding to deliver greater benefits to those who cannot afford private health insurance premiums.

Overall the public health system in New Zealand does a fantastic job but does have its limitations, particularly with regards to elective procedures. Private health insurance has a place in complementing public health services by picking up some of the slack in this elective surgery area, helping to fund innovation that benefits all New Zealanders and encourages those who can afford to look after more of their own health needs to do so.

Not all breast cancers are created equal

One in nine New Zealand women will be diagnosed with breast cancer over their lifetime giving us the 7th highest incidence rate of this disease in the world. I was fortunate enough to attend a summit hosted by Breast Cancer Cure, New Zealand’s only not-for-profit organisation solely dedicated to finding a cure for breast cancer through research. The summit featured leading oncologists and researchers talking about the very complex nature of breast cancer and how to treat it effectively.

Having worked in the private health insurance industry for more than a decade I was surprised by how much I learned over the course of this day with the real stand out for me being that all breast cancers are not created equal. The disease differs from woman to woman depending on a host of complex genetic factors and the key take away for me as an insurance professional, and as a woman, is the importance of early detection.

Genetic factors

An important factor in successfully treating breast cancer is first identifying exactly what sort of tumour a patient has. One of the key differentiators between tumours is how they respond to oestrogen. Approximately three quarters of breast cancers in New Zealand are hormone responsive tumours. This means that the hormones a woman’s body creates impacts on the rate at which her tumour grows and spreads, therefore treatment to reduce or remove the production of these hormones is helpful in fighting the cancer.

Another variant are triple negative breast cancers (TNBC) that represent about 15% of breast cancer diagnosed in New Zealand and tests negative for all three receptors (oestrogen, progesterone and HER2). These cancers tend to impact younger women and have very limited treatment options.

In addition, another important variable is whether the tumour is HER2 positive or negative. HER2 positive cancer is generally more aggressive than HER2 negative and as such requires more targeted treatment such as Trastuzumab (Herceptin) used in combination with more traditional chemotherapy.

Early detection

It is easy to feel helpless in the face of genetics, but overall the strongest message throughout the day was how important early detection is. Patients diagnosed with breast cancer at stage one, irrespective of their tumour’s genetic type, have far higher survival rates as the disease has not yet spread. Conversely being diagnosed at stage four is a grim prospect.

Regular screening is an important factor in diagnosing cancers before they can be felt and all women, especially those not yet eligible for publically funding screening should be checking themselves regularly. Our Private Health Plus product offers a contribution towards regular screening and comprehensive cover for cancer care should a diagnosis unfortunately occur.

Pic credit: William Bout, Unsplash.

Keeping one eye on the horizon

Providing insurance to one of the most underinsured countries in the world comes with obvious challenges such as the need to educate Kiwis on the benefits of protecting themselves from the unforeseen.

Financial commentators predict that the type of insurance consumers buy in 20 years will be very different to what’s on offer now. At Sovereign, we are preparing ourselves for the future by using the power of technology and data to target new areas of customer demand.

A recent digital triumph was our new ‘bank-grade’ hybrid cloud system delivered in a hugely ambitious – and successful – timeframe of just 10 weeks. A visible customer component is our Quick Quote web and mobile tool, which allows advisers to provide quotes instantly using their mobile devices. While it appears straightforward, it’s anything but. It involved building and deploying key enablers – such as a secure virtual data centre in the cloud (Amazon Web Services), a modern integration and business process management suite – and a configurable pricing engine, modern APIs and user interfaces.

Technology team_resellernews

The technology project team (L-R) – Nick Stanhope; Andrew Scott; Patrice de Marigny; Raffaella del Prete; Tony Lees; Linda Nightingale; Richard Beamish. Absent: Corina Elama; Feng Wu; Ross Stephenson; Liviu Elama and Michael Ung.

The new investment will give Sovereign speed, flexibility and choice. It will enable data-led automation, coherent omni-channel customer experience, machine learning and artificial intelligence – all necessities for a modern and customer-centric business. It’s a small step in a much bigger journey toward making insurance more accessible to more people.

We are also using data to increase our understanding of customer risk, behaviours and needs. Recent analysis told us our customers wanted simple and flexible support after an accident. As a result, we launched Accidental Injury Cover this month. This product complements traditional income protection products and ACC by providing our customers with access to an immediate payment they can use however they wish, whether it’s hiring some help at home, taking taxis or having some time off work. This is available as an optional benefit with no underwriting regardless of whether someone is in paid employment or not.

In the last financial year, we paid out around $70 million in health insurance claims, which gave our customers access to the best medical treatment options. Demand for effective and less invasive options continues to grow in the private sector and we are seeing greater capacity as more specialists and medical facilities come online in New Zealand, particularly in the area of cancer care. We’re constantly looking into our claims data to ensure that our products reflect demand.

The ability to respond to, and even anticipate, the needs of our customers means we can make a difference through our product design, provide greater choice and simply improve the user experience.

Our eyes are constantly fixed on the horizon because we are in the business of being there for customers in their time of need – today and tomorrow.

Originally published as Sponsored Content in the NBR. Republished with permission.

A year in review – insights from our claims data.

Sovereign’s claims provides a snapshot into the health issues affecting New Zealanders. I dove into the detail of our $380 million claim payments for the most recent financial year to see what the data would reveal.

About 45% of Sovereign’s claims related to life cover payments for those customers who died or became terminally ill. Half of these claims related to cancer, 15% to heart attack, and 10% due to a stroke. Sadly, about 5% of claims related to suicide and this figure increases to 15% for those customers aged under 40.

Mental health is also a factor in around 25% of Sovereign’s income protection claims; on par with cancer and heart disease. A recent report released by the Royal Australian & New Zealand College of Psychiatrists estimated the total cost to the New Zealand economy of mental illness to be about $17 billion (7% of our GDP). As we look at these cold and hard figures, it’s easy to lose sight of the associated impacts on our families and communities.

Whilst insurers have some way to go to better understand mental distress and to develop more inclusive insurance options, I take pride in the great work that our claims team does in supporting customers to get back on their feet. Last year, we spent around $1 million on rehabilitation services to support our income protection customers in their recovery. This money was used to pay for psychological support, occupational physicians, and even exercise programmes.

When it comes to health insurance, we paid about $70 million to support customers to access medical treatment. There continues to be a trend towards more effective and less invasive treatment options, particularly in the area of cancer care, which represents 15% of total claims. It’s hard to believe that the first private radiotherapy clinic opened in New Zealand in 2008 and just ten years later, private funding has enabled New Zealanders to access state of the art medical treatment.

Gynaecological claims (such as endometriosis) were also significant – representing about 22% of total claims for females. Access to publicly funded treatment for these complaints can be uncertain but the conditions themselves are very common – for example, one in 10 Kiwi women will develop endometriosis throughout their lives.

Finally, we paid out more than $50 million in trauma claims to help customers recover from serious medical conditions. Whilst medicine has made major progress in treating serious illness, the costs of treatment and recovery can nevertheless be significant. Modern trauma products today cover over 60 medical conditions and yet over 90% of claims continue to relate to cancer, heart disease, and stroke.

When we look at these numbers, it’s easy to see that insurance remains just as relevant today in protecting New Zealanders against the financial impacts of death, illness, and disability. Nobody wants to claim on their insurance policy but it’s a relief to know that it’s there.


How the DIY diagnosis will shape insurance

I recently stumbled on this site, which is crowdsourcing voices as part of a study to determine whether Parkinson’s disease can be detected by analysing phone-quality voice recordings. The research aims to build on recent studies that successfully demonstrated that the disease can be diagnosed by analysing speech recorded using high quality audio devices. The hope is to develop an app to test for Parkinson’s disease.

The rise of low cost diagnostic testing has the capacity to transform the insurance industry in a number of ways.

Genetic tests open up the opportunity for more individualised care. In 2013, Angelina Jolie publicly announced that she had undergone a prophylactic procedure to remove her breasts because she faced a heightened risk of breast cancer as a carrier of a defective BRCA gene (the gene produces proteins responsible for supressing tumours). In the coming months, screening of the defective gene rose by 37%. Three years later, New Zealand health insurer, Southern Cross, introduced an allowance to enable high risk members to seek prophylactic mastectomy treatment. Amongst the eligibility criteria is a positive genetic test confirming a defective BRCA gene.

Low cost testing also creates the opportunity for earlier diagnosis and treatment. In the case of some degenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s Disease or Multiple Sclerosis, early symptoms are generally vague. Low cost testing provides an opportunity to screen patients for a broader range of conditions at an earlier stage, bringing forward diagnosis and treatment. Health funders, including the public sector, are generally reluctant to cover routine screening on the basis of cost-benefit. However, the value equation is changing as tests become more cost effective. Shameless promotion: Sovereign Private Health Plus provides a $500 health screening allowance (every three years after three years).

Finally, the availability of at-home diagnostic tests allow people to screen themselves in the privacy of their own home. We are familiar with at-home pregnancy tests but did you know that you can now screen yourself for HIV, Hepatitis, or elevated cholesterol? Whilst the democratisation of medical information is empowering, it does create disclosure risks for the insurer: information gained outside the traditional medical system may be undiscoverable to insurers, which increases the opportunity for anti-selection. The insurance system cannot function efficiently if customers avoid disclosing known risk factors.

As with any new technology, changes in diagnostic medicine bring both threats and opportunities. The challenge for insurers is to find a way to embrace these developments to enhance, rather than restrict, the customer value proposition.

Living with bowel cancer

Working in the insurance industry means that you get very comfortable talking about things that other people find quite confronting, things like dying, becoming disabled or developing cancer. One topic that a lot of people really don’t want to talk about is bowel cancer and I can understand why. It affects an area of the body that isn’t usually discussed in polite company and the on-going impacts on people’s lives aren’t for the squeamish.

But bowel cancer kills more people in New Zealand than breast and prostate cancer combined so it’s time we started talking about it. Given its bowel cancer awareness month I wanted to share my story as I live with its effects every day.

My partner developed bowel cancer in his twenties (he is now in his forties) which was successfully treated surgically with no need for chemotherapy or radiotherapy. I’d love to say this is where the story ends, but it doesn’t. Due to the nature of the surgery he had he has on-going effects every day and is also subjected to regular invasive surveillance procedures.

Because he had almost his entire large bowel removed he has to take medication every single time he eats. The medication is designed to slow down his digestive system so if he doesn’t take it an evening out ends pretty quickly. This means I have to keep a good supply in my handbag just in case he forgets his pills. On the other hand though, if he takes too many pills he can get a painful bowel blockage.

We’ve also had to go to the hospital in the middle of the night a few times when he has suffered bowel obstructions brought on by the scar tissue surrounding his intestines and remaining large bowel. Thankfully he has never needed surgery to correct this but I’m scared that one day he will.

Because he developed bowel cancer at a very young age and his father died of it in his fifties, he needs to have regular monitoring. This means every two years he has a colonoscopy, every four years a gastroscopy and at times when his on-going pain has gotten really bad, MRIs to see if there is anything else going on. Every time he goes in for these checks I worry that this will be the time it comes back, or that his specialist will miss something or he’ll suffer some complication associated with the procedure.

So while my partner is cancer free, we will never really be free of bowel cancer.