Munich Re explains how reinsurers can help tackle an “explosion of obesity”

Obesity might not be the most obvious subject for a reinsurer to discuss, but Munich Re said it has a role to play in what it refers to as an epidemic affecting many countries.

With the cost of obesity in the US alone estimated at more than $100bn per year and rising, few healthcare issues claim such arresting headlines. But why would a reinsurer be involved in such a grassroots issue?

The answer, according to Munich Re, is that few companies have such experience of worldwide health initiatives or the wealth of accompanying data.

“Our presence as an international reinsurer, particularly one with a specific healthcare division, allows us to present expertise on trends in the fight against obesity and programmes that insurers and health providers can use,” said Regine Kaiser, spokeswoman for Munich Re.

In addition, she said, obesity is an example of the preventative healthcare issues in which reinsurers can be a catalyst between customers, health providers and insurers.

The high cost of obesity for healthcare providers derives from its multitude of related problems, particularly heart disease, type-2 diabetes, kidney failure, hypertension, atherosclerosis and stroke.

Dr Achim Regenauer, chief medical director at Munich Re, said: “Obesity is a growing burden for every healthcare system. What we can see is an explosion of obesity which will be relevant to healthcare costs later on.

“Compared to today's obese adults, most of whom became overweight in middle age, the coming generation will suffer 20 to 30 years longer from the detrimental effects of excess weight on their bodies, including associated health problems and diseases,” he added.

Under the radar

For several reasons, obesity can slip under the radar of healthcare providers: they so often focus on cure rather than prevention; obesity is growing fastest among the poor; and its health effects are seen years after the initial problem develops. Even the developing world is not immune. One quarter of four-year-olds in Egypt are considered fat and the same proportion of Chilean children under 10 are obese.

A Foresight report by the UK’s Office for Science warned that half the UK population could be obese by 2050 if the problem went unabated. In the US, 22 states now have more than 25% obesity rates, compared to just five states 20 years ago.

Munich Re’s most important learning experiences has been the creation of a private healthcare company in the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, which pioneered screening for diabetes and the use of health profiles.

Dr Franz Benstetter, head of Munich Re’s healthcare management services, said it was an example of a reinsurer “closing the disconnect between public health providers and the private sector” – a template the company wants to export elsewhere.

“What we have witnessed across Europe is increasing inefficiency in healthcare due to a disconnect between public and private interests,” he said.

“The problem of obesity and its related health issues is not necessarily a destiny – we can influence it, but we have to change our lifestyles. It can be tackled by the customers, the health providers and the insurers working together.”