Healthcare costs, telehealth adoption expected to accelerate in 2022

Willis Towers Watson’s 2022 Global Medical Trends Survey reports a rise in musculoskeletal injuries and mental health claims.

By Kacey Larsen      
Willis Towers Watson’s 2022 Global Medical Trends Survey

According to the 2022 Global Medical Trends Survey report by Willis Towers Watson, the projected employer-sponsored healthcare benefit cost trends are expected to increase in 2022 at a global average of 8.1%. The survey report tracks medical costs from a global network of 209 insurers in 61 countries and serves as explanation to the volatility in healthcare utilization and costs as COVID-19 cases surged in different countries at different times in 2020 and 2021.

The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of telehealth globally with 52% of insurers globally offering telehealth across all plans. The survey reports 37% of insurers indicate the addition of telehealth services as the biggest change organizations made to their medical portfolios in 2021. Across all regions—Latin America, Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa, and Europe—insurers are most likely to cover primary physician/general practitioner telehealth services, but other key areas that may be covered include access to prescription drug, specialist consultant services, mental health services and navigation in cases of acute illness.

“Telehealth’s momentum will be sustained post-pandemic,” says Francis Coleman, managing director, Willis Towers Watson. “In fact, the role of telehealth will continue to evolve not only as a navigation tool to speed access to the right care but also as a means to close gaps in access to care.”

Other takeaways from the 2022 Global Medical Trends Survey include:

  • Healthcare costs are expected to continue to accelerate beyond 2022. More than three-quarters of health insurers anticipate higher or significantly higher medical trends over the next three years. Insurers in Europe (86%) and insurers in the Middle East and Africa (82%) expect a higher medical trend the most, while 74% of insurers in Latin America and 64% of Asia Pacific insurers do.
  • Musculoskeletal disorders ranked as the top condition by incidence of claims. This raises the question of whether this rise could be attributed to poor ergonomics in employees’ work-from-home environment. Cardiovascular disease and respiratory conditions had the second and third highest incidence of claims.
  • Cancer dropped to No. 5 by incidence but continues to be a top condition affecting medical costs. After holding the top spot in prior surveys for incidence of claims, the survey hypothesizes that deferred treatments during the pandemic may be the cause of lower incidence.
  • Mental and behavioral disorders are expected to be the fastest growing condition by incidence in the next 18 months. Respondents think cancer and musculoskeletal disorders also will see growth. The fastest growing condition by cost in the next 18 months is anticipated to be cancer followed by cardiovascular and musculoskeletal disorders.

“COVID-19 has caused volatility in the trend numbers and in the leading causes of claims, as the sedentary lifestyle that often accompanies working from home has increased the risk of musculoskeletal injuries,” Coleman says. “In addition, as most employers can attest, mental health claims are also on the rise.”

Willis Towers Watson’s 2022 Global Medical Trends Survey asked participants about what well-being services—besides telehealth—they now have available directly or through a third-party. While there is still a long way to go, most insurers globally are now offering some of these well-being services: wellbeing/engagement portal, employee assistance plan, health content/kits/tips, point solutions, fitness/gym/challenges/competitions and financial education platform.

Highlights around global well-being services:

  • Forty percent of insurers indicate engagement portals are provided through third-party vendors. This figure is higher in Asia Pacific (49%) and the Middle East and Africa (44%).
  • Employee assistance programs are available through third-party vendors indicates 44% of survey respondents globally. Asia Pacific has a much higher response with 63%, while 43% of Latin American insurers report employee assistance programs are provided through an owned entity.
  • More than two-fifths of respondents globally indicate health content kits are available through owned entities, except in the Middle East and Africa.
  • Point solutions are provided through third-party vendors by over three in 10 insurers globally. However, 42% of respondents globally indicate point solutions are not offered at all.
  • Fitness programs and financial education platforms are least likely to be offered, according to insurers globally.