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Electronic medical records, AI changing the game for life insurers

In her decades in the life insurance industry, Jennifer Richards has seen plenty of initiatives to speed up underwriting, but she believes the record-keeping digitization underway now will be the biggest she has seen.

Electronic medical records could give life companies the chance to sell policies faster and underwrite them with greater accuracy, according to Richards, who is head of life insurance new business at MassMutual.

"I believe that electronic health records will be the biggest change in underwriting in my very, very long career," Richards said during a presentation at a recent American Council of Life Insurers conference.

Federal regulations, particularly since passage of the Affordable Care Act, have encouraged healthcare providers to digitize records and make them accessible from multiple sources. Life insurance applicants authorize insurers to check their medical histories to build risk profiles. Insurers then gather as much information as possible, often from more than one physician, and frequently ask applicants to submit to new tests before deciding to issue policies.

The explosion in availability of electronic medical records would replace much of that process and significantly shorten the time it takes to underwrite policies, Richards said.

"Nirvana is being able to go to one source and get all medical records in one fell swoop," she said.

Insurers and reinsurers are looking beyond traditional data points, such as health ratings, to write policies, said Samantha Chow, a senior life insurance analyst with Aite Group.

"It's social data. It's your Fitbit. It's all these different components," Chow said in an interview.

Life insurance companies are not yet able to interpret all the data from electronic medical records for underwriting. But the industry could use artificial intelligence technology to "learn," for example, the different references to cancer in medical records to help companies underwrite large or complex life policies, Chow said.

Brandon Carter, chairman and president of USAA Life Insurance Co., said life insurers are engaged in a digital arms race. The companies that will emerge from that war victorious already have digital strategies, Carter said during a presentation. Nearly all of the data available to life insurers is unstructured right now, and the industry's next challenge will be to tame it, he said.

"Those that leverage data and do it really well will be the winners of the new model," Carter said.

Life insurers have cut the time from application to policy issuance to 30 days from 57 since 2007, said Tom Scales, Celent LLC's head of life and health for the Americas. Access to the prescription database, and developing the medical data science to employ predictive analytics, will shorten that timeline further, Scales said during a presentation.

Artificial intelligence will enable carriers to write policies without physicians' statements, blood draws or medical records.

"It's the game changer in our industry," Scales said.

Technology was a primary theme for the ACLI's annual gathering. Insurance technology occupied virtually all the available floor space for exhibitors who set up inside Baltimore Marriott Waterfront.

The insurance trade groups who jointly organize the conference have for the last four years put technology at forefront at the request of its member companies, said Elaine Tumicki, product and research director for LIMRA, one of the conference's organizers.

"There's a lot of interest in technology solutions in all facets of the industry from marketing and distribution to product development to back office, home office functions and ... underwriting," Tumicki said in an interview.