Covid-19 | In conversation with Discovery Life’s chief medical officer

Dr Maritha van der Walt shares her clinical perspective

12 May 2021 - 12:19
Discovery chief medical officer Dr Maritha Van der Walt.
Discovery chief medical officer Dr Maritha Van der Walt.
Image: Supplied/Discovery Life

The Covid-19 pandemic is an active global health concern, affecting more than 220 countries and territories. With more than 107-million known global infections since the outbreak began, Sars-CoV-2 (the 2019 coronavirus) is affecting more lives.

Because this is a global health challenge, how we go about reducing infection and mortality rates in the future will be vital. With protective measures, such as those offered by life insurance plans, weathering the challenges that come with it can be put in place.

Discovery understands the impact that a crisis such as Covid-19 can have on its members and policyholders, especially within the areas of health and life insurance. 

What do we know? How can we better protect our quality of life? Discovery chief medical officer Dr Maritha van der Walt shares a few insights and thoughts.

What clinically related research has Discovery done since the start of the pandemic in SA?

“Discovery Health and Discovery Life have worked together to identify who our high-risk clients and members may be. Using this information on our databases, we sent out communication to individually inform them about Covid-19 and how to go about practising effective prevention measures.

“We’ve also seen that a healthy lifestyle and engagement in the Vitality programme reduces the risk of Covid-19 complications, even in high-risk groups of people.

“Through Discovery’s developed model, using factors such as age, sex, member complexity profile (in other words; any relevant high-risk health conditions or comorbidities that a person may be under treatment for), and a Vitality engagement measure, we can determine a possible risk profile on our members’ behalf. Using this, the  businesses can better guide members and policyholders to help lower potential risk of severe illness if they contract Covid-19.”

The model has shown that if a person falls ill, their risk of needing hospitalisation may increase considerably depending on the risk factors they have. These factors are now well known and many include male sex, older age, chronic heart problems, lung problems, chronic kidney disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes and obesity. However, risk levels can also decrease with healthy doses of physical activity. The Vitality programme can be used to encourage members and policyholders to maintain a healthy lifestyle with good nutrition and exercise.

“We have also seen young, healthy people experiencing severe Covid-19 infections, which means everybody, regardless of age or comorbidities, must follow all of the precautionary and preventive guidelines to stay safe.”

What has Discovery Life done differently from a clinical perspective to ensure that clients are protected?

With general clinical information at hand paired with our own knowledge of how our members and policyholders can best protect themselves, Discovery Life has been able to better assess the current needs of its clients and respond appropriately. This assessment has, in turn, helped  inform how products can be adapted and even created to provide protective buffers for clients. 

“During lockdown, we created ‘safe zones’ or ‘mini labs’ at our various franchises. Here, the highest standards of hygiene were maintained to mitigate risk to our clients or employees. With the easing of lockdown regulations, our nurses on the road can once again provide excellent service to our clients at their places of work or at their homes, while maintaining the highest standards of hygiene.”

What are some of the trends you’ve noticed in SA and the globe, post the outbreak?

One noticeable factor is that SA’s mortality rate is about 1.4%. With recent case numbers now more than 1,522,697 (as at March 9 2021)the country’s recovery rate of about 92% is also more or less in line with the global average. 

“Our case fatality rate in SA is well below international statistics, but that doesn’t mean we can be complacent.”

"This means that we all have to continue to play our part with the recommended non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as wearing your mask, sanitising and maintaining a safe social distance.”

Have these trends informed any specific decisions to better protect clients?

When it comes to protection, little can do what well practised prevention measures can. “Prevention through social distancing, wearing of masks, hand washing and sanitising remains the best way to prevent this disease from spreading. Strict hygiene protocols are in place wherever our clients are in contact with Discovery Life employees.”

Discovery Life has also assessed its product range and identified other ways clients can be better protected through their plans. Within the Severe Illness benefit, the newly developed Multi-organ benefit protects against acute multi-organ failure due to an illness such as Covid-19. The benefit provides additional financial protection where needed, over and above what a medical aid plan can provide through clinical care support.

In your view, will there be regular outbreaks of Covid-19 in the future?

“We will probably have to live with this virus for the foreseeable future. Covid-19 vaccines are being tested and have been administered to millions of people in the world. The rollout will take some time to complete, so the non-pharmacological measures remain our biggest weapon against this unpredictable and changing disease.”

“In the meantime, it’s up to every one of us to try to prevent contracting and transmitting the virus. This way we can prevent the hospitals and health services from getting overwhelmed.”

What are some of the vital learning that we can use in the future?

“All role players such as the government, private and public sector, organised labour ... have to work together to overcome this pandemic.”

“We have seen heartwarming outreach projects, and more sharing and caring than ever before. It’s now a time that’s more focused on ‘us’ and less ‘I’. We also have world-renowned medical scientists and medical people in this country, all working together to find solutions for problems that we never thought were possible. We should take these learning and build on them.”

Discovery Life Ltd registration number 1966/003901/06, is a licensed insurer, an authorised financial services and a registered credit provider, NCR registration number NCRCP3555. No liability will be accepted for the effect of any future legislative or regulatory changes. Product rules, terms and conditions apply.

This article was paid for by Discovery Life.