NIB looks to disruptive future in the health insurance space

NIB has embarked on a range of innovation-driven initiatives aimed at disrupting the complex and highly regulated health insurance industry.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Australia's NIB has taken an innovative approach to the highly regulated health insurance space and is looking at the market as one ripe for disruption.

Speaking with ZDNet, NIB CIO Brendan Mills said his company views the whole industry as one that ultimately needs to go through some change, believing technology can enable it.

The health insurance industry is not without its complexities, but having been with NIB for 14 years -- and about five of those in the capacity as CIO -- Mills sees it as one that has been underinvested in for some time.

"From our point of view, we probably see ourselves as a disrupter ... we only have about 10 percent market share, but we see ourselves as trying to be fairly agile, nimble, and really try and bring innovation through," he explained.

"Innovation is part of our culture; it's how we operate the business ... we always try experimenting with new initiatives."

However, it's important to NIB that it doesn't implement technology for technology sake; rather it needs to solve a business problem.

"A problem looking for a solution, complemented or underpinned by technology," he explained.

When it comes to cultural alignment at NIB, Mills conceded the journey hasn't been without its challenges.

"We're also probably 1,200 employees -- I think that gives us a little bit of an advantage over some of the larger companies," he said. "We're small enough to be reasonably agile and nimble, but also large enough to give some scale and credibility to the change we're trying to drive."

Earlier this month, NIB launched a chatbot initiative in New Zealand that runs on IBM Watson. The AI consultant, dubbed "Frankie", joined NIB's customer service team in a bid to help provide convenient, timely responses to health cover-related customer enquiries.

"The idea behind it is really so we can bring a greater level of choice and a greater level of service to our customers," Mills said, noting that Frankie's responsibilities will be built on as the cognitive learning kicks in.

"About a third of the interactions with Frankie are coming outside of hours ... Already it's given us another channel [for communication]."

In parallel to that, Mills said NIB is also developing some AI and chatbot technology for its Australian domestic health insurance business and is currently running a pilot based on Amazon Web Services' (AWS) Lex, with the final bot expected to be launched in the near future.

"That will be an interesting contrast between the two technology platforms," Mills said. "We've got a much, much bigger market here in Australia -- it will be really interesting to get some data back to see what the customer sentiment and appetite is."

Choosing AWS for the Australian chatbot was almost a no-brainer, as NIB has a heavy investment in the AWS in the country already, being closely aligned with its cloud strategy.

"We have made a heavy investment in cloud; a lot of our digital footprint -- our systems of engagement -- are delivered through an AWS platform," Mills explained.

NIB started its AWS journey around two years ago and is now at the stage where the organisation is looking to bring other subsidiaries across the group onto the platform, including internationally.

Another digital initiative that also runs on AWS that NIB has invested in is its Trip Advisor-like health platform Whitecoat.

The company invested heavily in the website that connects people with health care practitioners early, and recently opened it up for competitors HBF and Bupa as well, forming part of NIB's plan to make it a one-stop shop for health needs.

To Mills, Whitecoat is an industry offering as opposed to just an NIB customer proposition, with around 50 percent of the insured population interacting with the platform. It's also available to the public to book and rate health practitioners.

"It's a vehicle for customer transparency and empowering customers with the information they need to make better informed decisions," he said.

With the advent of IoT and sensors in everything including implantables and wearables, the health industry's ability to assist customers in managing health is going to expand, especially when it comes to using data and machine learning to look at patterns in available data.

What that means to Mills is a future where NIB is going to be able to offer customers better health management opportunities, rather than just providing reactive insurance products.

"We think the industry as a whole is going to head into that direction," Mills added. "We're certainly seeing that already emerge in the market."

NIB already has a heavy focus on data, but now it's just a matter of utilising big data tech to actually service the customer better.

"Data is king -- I think everyone is focused on how they use data more and more to improve the whole experience for the customer," he added.

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