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The Manulife Head Office at 200 Bloor St. East, in Toronto. Part of Manulife’s increased focus on preventative care came about in 2021, when its group benefits department saw a spike in the number of claims submitted by young Canadians for mental-health sick leave and diabetes treatments.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Manulife Financial Corp. MFC-T is joining forces with U.S.-owned medical advisory firm Cleveland Clinic Canada in a major step toward expanding the insurer’s role to becoming a provider of preventative health care services for Canadians.

Canada’s largest life insurer will announce on Thursday it has appointed Toronto-based Cleveland as the new medical director for its group benefits operations. The clinic will provide Manulife access to Cleveland’s global network of medical experts as well as conduct joint research into preventative health care.

“We as an insurer have a real unique opportunity from where we sit to be able to play a more active role in supporting Canadians in their preventative health journey,” Manulife’s head of group benefits in Canada, Ashesh Desai, said in an interview. “We’ve been on this journey for a while now on the larger role we can play in helping Canadian employers keep their employee base, and Canadians overall, staying healthier. And that means we must remove the barriers to accessing health care services and programs.”

Since the onset of COVID-19 in 2020, insurance companies rapidly expanded into the health care business as they broaden their services in group benefits beyond just processing health care and insurance claims. In recent years, some of Canada’s largest insurers have begun to offer direct access to virtual family doctors and online mental-health support.

Now, as Canada’s health care system continues to see a surge in overwhelmed emergency rooms, preventative care is growing in importance.

The Canadian Cancer Society, for instance, estimates that about 40 per cent of all cancers in Canada can be prevented through healthy living and government policies that protect the health of Canadians.

“We are really focused on shifting our role from just a claims provider to having more of a pro-active role in helping Canadians actually get better health outcomes,” Mr. Desai added.

Over the past year, Manulife has run several pilot projects and new initiatives in preventative care, such as personalized medicine based on genetic testing, nudging benefits plan members toward vaccinations and flu shots, and offering an early cancer detection project through Manulife’s U.S. subsidiary, John Hancock.

In a partnership with California-based Grail LLC, John Hancock clients can be screened for more than 50 types of cancer through a single blood test. (Medical results are not shared directly with John Hancock or Manulife.)

Part of Manulife’s increased focus on preventative care came about in 2021, when its group benefits department saw a spike in the number of claims submitted by young Canadians for mental-health sick leave and diabetes treatments.

Canadians under age 44 made up 19 per cent of workers who submitted group health claims for diabetes in 2022, up from 13 per cent in 2019, according to Manulife research.

During the same time period, the number of Canadians aged 18 to 34 going on long-term disability for mental illness increased by 22 per cent. And the number of workers in this age group submitting claims for mental-health reasons – including for therapy, medication and disability – is up 27 per cent in just the past year.

While the pandemic has increased the number of Canadians suffering from a mental-health illness, putting pressure on Canadian companies to increase maximum coverage limits for mental-health benefits, Mr. Desai said Manulife is still researching the reasons behind the surge in diabetes claims.

“This is scary when you see the number of individuals in Canada – and younger Canadians – that are starting to experience more health conditions,” Mr. Desai adds.

“But it opens the door for us to engage more. What can we do more pro-actively? As claims come into us, how can we help provide more information? How can we give someone with a medical condition more guidance? How can we get them to the right medical provider? This is where aggregate data can help.”

The relationship with Cleveland, he says, will help drive more research on how to offer more personalized medical advice for patients.

For example: If someone submits a claim for a Naproxen, a pain relief medication, and then later moves onto a stronger pain medication, while also submitting chiropractor, massage therapy and physiotherapy claims, that data could flag the need for additional intervention for an underlying medical condition that may be going undiagnosed.

“Cleveland may have seen interventions on a global scale that points to a recommendation for that person to have another assessment,” Mr. Desai said. “That’s the kind of clinical intervention that we want to be able to provide for our members. We want them to be able to get the right guidance at the right time because we don’t want them to progress down a more severe clinical issue.”

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