Keeping pace with medical advances

It would be reassuring to know that within the next 10 years we\'ll be able to scan, screen or test for the most debilitating illnesses quickly, followed by swift, effective treatment. And when you look at the medical advances of the past couple of months it\'s easy to believe that anything is possible.

US researchers have made the amazing discovery of enzymes that react abnormally on the skin of Alzheimer’s patients. The study indicates that a test could distinguish Alzheimer’s from other brain damaging diseases such as Parkinson’s. At the moment, Alzheimer’s can only be diagnosed using psychiatric assessment or during a post-mortem. This test would mean that patients could be diagnosed and hopefully treated before the distressing symptoms associated with the disease develop.

On a similarly positive note, a trial using blood tests to detect breast cancer at an earlier stage than is currently possible has been successful. It seems this test could be adapted to identify melanoma and detect prostate and ovarian cancers at a stage when people look and feel fine.

It makes sense to assume that these types of advances will bring more claims on critical illness policies at earlier stages of diseases. So is this likely to happen and, if it does, will a rise in claims for early stage illnesses result in increased premiums for critical illness cover?

The good news is that the Association of British Insurers’ critical illness definitions published in its statement of best practice earlier this year reflect possible advances of this nature.

As a result, the definitions of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s provide cover from when symptoms start. Equally, the cancer definition covers tumours from the point of invasion and medical experts agree that the earlier the diagnosis, the better the prognosis. Early cancers that don’t respond to treatment become covered later. This means that no life-threatening cases should slip through the net.

The statement of best practice also brings greater clarity through more descriptive headings – for example, ‘cancer – excluding less ad-vanced cases’. And the definition further emphasises what is and is not covered by making it clear that conditions such as pre-malignant, non- invasive and cancers in situ are not covered.

This acknowledgment of the likely implications of medical advances will help ensure premiums are stabilised. Without this type of self-regulation the definitions and premiums may have had to be changed every time a medical breakthrough came along.

By having definitions that don’t have to change regularly, everyone should be clearer about what is and is not covered. This is good news, especially for consumers.