Discovery allocates up to R10 000 extra per family for screenings as cancer, heart problems spike

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Discovery has launched a fund to encourage health screenings as doctors see a spike in late-stage cancers, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
Discovery has launched a fund to encourage health screenings as doctors see a spike in late-stage cancers, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
  • Discovery Health Medical Scheme has launched The WELLTH Fund to encourage health screenings.
  • It says health screenings were not at optimal levels before the Covid-19 pandemic, but now this has worsened.
  • As people avoid screenings, doctors have seen a spike in late-stage cancers, advanced diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
  • For more financial news, go to the News24 Business front page.

Discovery Health Medical Scheme (DHMS) has set aside R1.5 billion to boost healthcare screenings and preventative care among its members amid a spike in severe diagnoses like late-stage cancer.

The medical scheme launched The WELLTH Fund on Wednesday, which will allocated each family covered by the scheme up to R10 000 for screenings. The funds can be used for general healthcare needs, diet, fitness, medical monitoring devices, mental health benefits and a host of other purposes.

Discovery Health CEO, Dr Ryan Noach, said that while the scheme has set aside R1.5 billion, the total cost will depend on how many people actually use it. And DHMS members will need to activate the WELLTH Fund benefit before going for screenings to avoid being paid out from their medical savings accounts.

Noach said this was about starting a movement towards helping people understand the rising health risks in SA, which ultimately benefits medical schemes because a healthier member base means fewer claims. He said the scheme's return-on-investment analysis showed that for every R1 it invests in the WEALLTH Fund, it can expect to receive a return on investment of about R9 in the long term.

"The dividend that the society gets is a healthier society. The dividend that the scheme gets is lower healthcare costs. Cancer diagnosed in stage one is much more affordable to treat than cancer diagnosed at stage three," he said.

The Fund will be available for two years, allowing scheme members to continue with these screenings and preventative care appointments until the end of 2024.

It was prompted by the rise in serious illnesses post-Covid-19 as many people skipped doctor visits and routine check-ups during the lockdown, fearing the risk of contracting the virus in hospitals and doctors' rooms.

DHMS said health screenings among its members decreased by 21% over the last two years. Even screenings for serious conditions like diabetes, breast cancer, cervical and prostate cancers declined by between 10% and 50%.

Noach said that even before the pandemic, the level of health screenings in SA was nowhere where it needed to be. For instance, only 25% of women at the risk age of getting breast cancer were utilising their medical scheme benefits to do routine mammograms.

And because the pre-pandemic screening baseline was so low, after people stopped having health checks during the lockdowns, DHMS and doctors are seeing a spike in people diagnosed with cancer at more advanced stages.

"We've seen some recovery of this, but health screening remains below pre-pandemic level," said Noach. "[In] other severe diseases, like diabetes, our data is demonstrating a higher proportion of diagnoses in a more complex phase of disease…with more organ damage, with more risks for long-term health," he added.

READ | Discovery flags 200% spike in heart-disease death claims

The head of Discovery Health's Centre for Clinical Excellence, Noluthando Nematswerani, said that in cancer, this is exacerbated by the fact that SA doesn't have national cancer screening programmes - only those with medical aid have access. But even among those covered by medical aid, uptake remains too low.

What concerns her even more is the prevalence of hypertension, which is now the top chronic condition in their books.

"Pre-Covid-19, we were not seeing anywhere close to what we should have been seeing in terms of screening…So, we are not looking to revert to 2019 rates. We want to surpass those rates because they were not optimal," she said.

Meanwhile, Discovery's Futures Data indicates that early detection of these conditions can improve survivors' lifespans materially. For instance, a 40-year-old diagnosed with early-stage cancer is expected to survive 22 years longer than someone with a late-stage diagnosis.

"There's no question that the evidence based in medicine is there. Evidence shows that screening works at population levels, and the outcomes are better," said Noach.

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