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David Sawers: Gwyneth Paltrow’s vaginal eggs

Coming to a cash plans benefit table near you soon?
Health Insurance & Protection Editor David Sawers

It’s not much – $145,000 – to a Hollywood big-hitter who has made up to $10m per movie. But the fine handed out last year to Goop, the “wellness and lifestyle” brand set up by film star Gwyneth Paltrow, raises questions beyond dollars and cents that are, believe it or not, of interest to the UK health insurance and protection industry.

Goop’s claims that the “vaginal eggs” that it was selling at around $66 a pop and that would do everything from easing depression to boosting sexual appetite and from “balancing hormones to regulating menstrual cycles, preventing uterine prolapse and increasing bladder control”, were slapped down by a US regulator that said they were “misbranded, unapproved, or falsely-advertised medical devices”.

Goop’s defence – that there was a misunderstanding around “verbiage” – didn’t seem to impress the regulator over there, although I thought it quite catchy nonetheless.

So, the $145,000 fine lands and Goop gets a lot of media coverage. People might be sceptical about the health benefits of vaginal eggs – but at least the fine got punters on the Goop website looking at other stuff. One up to Goop; $145,000 looks like money well spent. It’s cheaper than advertising.

Goop says it is an organisation that “believes that the little things count, that good food is the foundation of love and wellness, that the mind/body/spirit is inextricably linked, and we have more control over how we express our health than we currently understand.”

Go Goop!

“We believe in making every choice count,” Goop says.

Go Goop!

Yet Goop was given that $145,000 telling-off and, yes, a lot of what it offers has been dismissed by some commentators as pseudoscience, mumbo jumbo and all the rest.

I don’t know if it is or isn’t and I’ve no idea if the vaginal eggs in question work/worked or not (please email in if you can shed any light on the subject).

But I can’t help feeling – the rational part of my brain must be on holiday – a bit of sympathy for Goop for being punished for its supposed witchcraft.

After all, if people want to buy something that they think will benefit their health or lifestyle and it doesn’t do any physical harm – although some doctors suggested these eggs might but that remains unproven – then what’s the problem? After all, there are plenty of things that the health insurance and protection industry in the UK offers that some people might put in the same category as vaginal eggs, at least in terms of health benefits.

Speak to GPs in the lands bereft of milk and honey like Cliftonville in North Belfast, Possil Park in Glasgow, Oldham in, well, Oldham, or Denbighshire in Wales and you’ll see a few raised eyebrows at “health” claims made by purveyors and funders of hopi ear candles, reiki, hot stone massages, shiatsu and Indian head massages. Yes, services that are happily promoted by cash plan and PMI providers.

Those GPs have, erm, more pressing concerns about the patients they see for 10 minutes at a time (if they’re lucky).

And yet you’ll see hopi ear candles, Indian head massages and reiki – and similar services – appear on cash plan and (some) private medical insurance (PMI) providers’ benefits tables.

That’s fine and they might be be really helpful for a certain type of individual (that probably doesn’t live in Cliftonville, Possil Park, Oldham or Denbighshire). Fair enough.

But it’s also a bit confusing, as “health” cash plans – which are meant, after all, to appeal to “blue collar” workers and everyone else too – that pay for that kind of stuff often don’t pay for smoking cessation products like nicotine patches or gum and e-cigarettes.

Nor, in many cases, do they tend to pay for herbs, herbal remedies, supplements or vitamins, even if they have been suggested to a scheme member by a doctor as part of their treatment.

Nor, again, in many cases, do they tend to pay for weight management programmes.

It’s an unsettling hypocrisy from an industry that preaches health and wellness night and day.

I’m not suggesting that treatments like hopi ear candles and Indian head massages are worthless or anyone providing them is doing so duplicitously.

Nor am I suggesting that people in Cliftonville, Possil Park, Oldham or Denbighshire don’t or wouldn’t find them useful.

I’m just a bit baffled as to why Indian head massages and the like appear on cash plan benefit tables but smoking/drug/alcohol/obesity programmes tend not to.

If the health insurance and protection industry does what it should be doing – in other words offering people a choice about whatever (legal) “health” solution works for them – then why doesn’t it actually do it?

Why do cinema tickets and coffee shop vouchers show up on benefit tables but smoking or weight management programmes don’t? I’d happily jump in front of a bus to defeat the nanny state, but shouldn’t both?

In the world of PMI, providers like Vitality, to be fair, offer smoking cessation programmes and other health-based benefits, in addition to eye-catchers like cinema tickets and coffee vouchers. There’s room for both.

But there seems to be a growing disconnect, particularly in the cash plan sector, between actual healthcare and the eye-catching retail stuff like shopping mall discounts. If the sector is serious about helping to improve health and wellbeing, it might have to wage its own – a real, not pie-in-the-sky – “war” on things like obesity, smoking and alcohol.

Inevitably, counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy appear on most benefit tables – and that’s fine, if those things help people. It’s up to them.

But to others – and for every talking therapies advocate you can find, there will be another clinician who thinks much of it is snake oil – they’re not as useful as their salesmen say they are.

All of that means that the sector shouldn’t fire the starting gun on a benefits race like critical illness insurance providers find themselves in (saying that, I’m taking bets on which cash plan provider is the first to pay for “fish pedicures” – you know, that weird thing where people put their feet into a tank of tiny fish that nibble away at dead skin).

As the “War on Smoking” and the “War on Sugar” and the “War on Obesity” and the “War on Plastic” and the “War on the Next Thing That Someone Can Make Dosh From By Having a War On It” – whatever you think about them – join communism and the BBC’s Doctors and Homes Under the Hammer in the panoply of human idiocy, it seems a bit odd that smoking cessation and weight management programmes don’t appear on PMI and cash plans benefits tables in the same way that chair massages and hopi ear candle treatments do.

Perhaps, despite their protests, cash plan providers simply survive or die on dental and optical benefits and the creative ability of brokers to use them to manage PMI excesses. Maybe the peripheral benefits – hopi ear candles, Indian head massage, high street retail discounts and so on – are little more than distracting add-ons that appeal to a certain type of finance or HR decision maker.

Either way, I’m not expecting to see vaginal eggs on PMI or cash plans benefits tables soon. And it would be a shame, in any case, to see the sector get itself caught up in a benefits race like CI providers find themselves stuck in. Health insurers squabbling over why their vaginal eggs are better than others might not be the best optics for anybody.

And the accompanying debate about claims statistics would be hilarious but contentious and not very helpful.

But if the health insurance and protection industry is actually serious about helping individuals and employers to improve their health and wellbeing, it might be time to take another look at those benefit tables.

It would take a stone-cold heart not to chuckle at the prospect of health insurance brokers and providers hurtling around the UK trying to persuade bemused clients about the supposed health benefits of vaginal eggs.

But perhaps the industry could come up with other stuff that has real, tangible benefits to health, wealth and productivity that people want and need and employers will pay for too. I hope someone really gives it a try.

Or maybe I’m just talking verbiage.