Manulife’s Chief Underwriter Karen Cutler has some thoughts about that…
Originally published in Advisor Unlimited
“The future of underwriting is all about the data.” Ask Karen Cutler, Head of Underwriting and Claims at Manulife, her opinion about the direction of underwriting and the insurance industry, and she is quick to point out that it is no longer about “old school” practices but rather, as is the case with most industries, it’s about shifting to an innovative mindset. “What I love about my job is the freedom to explore and try new things. Implementing data into the underwriting process is at the forefront of what we do,” she explains. With data scientists on her team, Karen is invested in making it easier for people to buy insurance.
As Chief Underwriter at one of the largest insurance providers in Canada, Karen has been on the cutting edge of some game-changing initiatives. “We were the first to use AI to make underwriting decisions. We were also the first (in 2016) to underwrite HIV applicants given our enhanced ability to monitor life expectancy and mortality rates.” Manulife’s lists of “firsts” has not only helped the company make insurance far more accessible, but it’s also enabled them to address the fallout of a worldwide crisis in truly effective ways.
A Game-Changing Approach to Health and Wellness
The pandemic fundamentally altered the way we live, the way we work, the way we communicate, and the way we approach our health, wellness and financial decisions including the need for insurance. As one of Canada’s top insurers, Manulife has had to position itself for the long haul; that is to say, as Karen explains, “we’ve had to find ways to stay ahead of it and consequently be able to weather the storm while addressing numerous issues that have come up since the onset of the pandemic.”
Manulife’s Vitality program, grounded in the social science of behavioural economics, has been a key differentiator for the company. The Vitality program—offered as both an individual and group initiative—is focused on overall health management. “What types of things did people change during the pandemic as a result of being confined at home…Some gained weight, some drank a bit more, many got out of a healthy routine. Vitality helps them get back on the road to good health.”
You might think of the program as a life/fitness coach that you can take with you anywhere. According to Cutler, “It is something that challenges you to set goals and stick with them. The platform measures and registers your progress. In turn, when you reach certain goals, you are rewarded.” Studies show that during the pandemic, those who were physically active had improved lung capacity, lower hospitalization rates, and their mortality rates were also statistically lower. COVID propelled many to “slide out of good habits and the Vitality program can be a coach to get you back in the game.” It combines life insurance with a technology-enabled program that offers education, support, incentives and rewards designed to help customers live longer, healthier lives.
The Problem of Delayed Healthcare
Beyond the direct health-related effects of the pandemic, there is also the issue of delayed healthcare. Research suggests that cancer screenings dropped by as much as 35% from pre-pandemic levels. Life expectancy has decreased worldwide. And a great deal of this has to do with the fact that during the pandemic there was a lack of available resources and people simply were not getting in for preventive and routine healthcare.
As Karen explains, “If you haven’t gone for routine physicals in a couple of years whether because of an inability to get an appointment or because of fear, then that could lead to some issues, such as later diagnoses of cancer or other diseases for example.” Cutler goes on to note that “there is also the problem at the beginning of the pandemic with people who had started treatment and then had to stop and push that treatment out.”
There is a good chance this is going to pose some problems in the coming years as the country and the world struggle to get back to a version of healthcare that we saw before COVID disrupted everything. For their part, Manulife is hoping that Vitality among other initiatives, will encourage greater awareness about the importance of being vigilant about one’s health —both physical and mental health and to turn that awareness into action and engagement
A Life Long Learner
Looking back on her almost twenty-year career at Manulife, Cutler credits her early exposure to various levels and facets of the insurance industry as that which has since helped her adeptly navigate her current role, especially amid a global crisis. She is also a staunch proponent of learning. When asked about the kinds of people she has working for her, Karen said that “life long learners are who we have on our team. I hire people who have both passion and curiosity and are eager to apply it to their work.”
“My organization is a learning organization—tell us what you want to learn and how you want to develop, and we help keep your career on track.” - Karen Cutler
The designation “life long learner” is perhaps what best describes Karen’s own professional journey. And she certainly encourages this mindset. The company has what are known as “Fuel Up Fridays,” a time, Karen explains, to “grow your skills; for my teams, we have a specific focus on education, periods during which we do monthly round tables to help educate. My organization is a learning organization—tell us what you want to learn and how you want to develop, and we help keep your career on track.”
Staying on track toward professional growth is particularly important when it comes to women in this field. As a mentor to a number of individuals, Karen’s focus is largely on helping them build confidence in their voices. Women tend to face this issue regardless of industry. They lack a belief in their voice; they regularly seem to undermine their own value. Karen’s objectives in supporting others are to help instill confidence and to motivate other women to “believe in their abilities and ultimately be able to articulate that confidence.”
When all is said and done, what does the chief underwriter of the future look like according to Karen Cutler: “It will be someone who understands how to harness the power of data, how to think creatively and outside the box, someone who has an appreciation for human behavior, and someone who isn’t afraid to say what they think.” In this context, the future of underwriting certainly sounds exciting.
Insurance products are issued by The Manufacturers Life Insurance Company. The Vitality Group Inc., in association with The Manufacturers Life Insurance Company, provides the Manulife Vitality program. The Manulife Vitality program is available with select policies. Vitality is a trademark of The Vitality Group International Inc., and is used by The Manufacturers Life Insurance Company and its affiliates under license.