Brokers who say there is not enough innovation in the health and protection sector could be about to find out otherwise – but perhaps in way they weren’t quite expecting. Stephanie Spicer speaks to a former senior Bupa and Scot Prov exec to find out why she believes personalised medicine and stem cell therapy could be about to change the game for good
Sue Wilkinson has spent much of her career in the healthcare insurance industry but is now embarked on enlightening intermediaries and their clients on a new form of insurance: that of the value of a key aspect of the future of modern medicine – of stem cell therapy.
For Wilkinson (pictured) now heads up the commercial management of BioEden Tooth Stem Cell Bank in Europe. She started her career as a Bupa private medical insurance adviser and she also worked as a trainer, eventually becoming national sales development manager for its protection division.
She then joined Scottish Mutual’s senior management team, and following the merger of Pegasus with Scottish Provident became head of life and health propositions. And she has also run her own business as a cognitive behavioural therapist specialising in addictions.
But now she says she is “thrilled and amazed to be once again working at the forefront of new medical advances, with some of the best brains in science and medicine”. And if you haven’t heard her recently speaking about stem cell banking you could well soon, because Wilkinson sees healthcare intermediaries as integral to providing clients with an opportunity that may well change their family’s lives.
STEM CELL SCIENCE
Now for the science bit: stem cell banking is the storage of stem cells for future use and most importantly, through private banking – or autologous banking, meaning one’s own cells for one’s own use. The cells come from the milk teeth of children – these are the mesenchymal stem cells in baby teeth that BioEden founders Mike Byrom and Dr Songtao Shi knew could treat far more diseases and conditions than any other type of stem cell, could proliferate outside the body and could prolong and preserve life. Because the cells are taken from teeth that naturally fall out the whole process in non invasive. And the cells likely to be best form of stem cell harvesting.
As Wilkinson explains, while there is some NHS storing of stem cells, the quality is not ideal: “The problems with public banking [usually limited to volume reduced cord blood] means that a stem cell match is often difficult and volume reduced blood means this can treat only certain illnesses such as blood disorders. Even if a match is found from a donor, because they are not your own cells, a lifetime of anti-rejection drugs is needed.”
BioEden, which now operates out of 21 countries worldwide, will take delivery of the children’s milk teeth, harvest the stem cells and then store them securely ready for whatever use they may be required for in the future.
Wilkinson was becoming something of a convert before she even joined BioEden, having had a former colleague almost lose his life but for stem cell treatment.
“From this a healthy fascination grew for the subject,” she says. “Then out of the blue I got a call from Tony Veverka, chief executive officer at BioEden, who was looking for healthcare consultancy. After a few months, I joined the senior management team full time and the rest is – if not history – about making history. The work we do is life-saving, I couldn’t wish for any more than that.”
AN OPPORTUNITY FOR INTERMEDIARIES?
Where healthcare intermediaries fit into the picture is quite simple – BioEden would like them to introduce clients to its service. Already it has engaged with a number of large and small specialist intermediaries to explain the service and market to their clients.
Intermediaries who introduce clients get a flat commission payment – or introducer’s fee – which Wilkinson says is in line with those offered on life insurance, critical illness policies, etc. The group is looking at broker bonuses for volume business – and already offers free stem cell banking for their child or family cells to intermediaries who have introduced three new clients.
Wilkinson says many of the brokers she has already talked to see a responsibility in at least letting clients know about the option to store their stem cells.
“Stem cell banking is about storing health for the future, prolonging and saving life,” she says, “Any broker who believes in client relationships and excellent service would not want to ignore stem cell banking. Imagine the conversation if a client needed stem cell therapy and couldn’t get a match. They could be asking their broker, particularly those who are healthcare or protection brokers, why they were not told that stem cell banking existed for them. If a broker advises on healthcare or protection in any form they need to be aware of this.
“This is an opportunity again for intermediaries to prove their worth over and above on-line direct insurance, for example, because having the right stem cells available when needed is absolutely critical. Talking about it to their clients means they cannot lose. There is however a real risk if they opt to keep silent about it.”
Wilkinson says the small network of specialists currently engage in the pilot scheme is already producing a steady flow of clients.
“Because of what we do we are more likely to get good quality decent volume business from the one man bands as we are from a big provider because of their attitude and the way they look after their clients,” she says.
A QUESTION OF COST
For those critics that say this is just another product for the haves while the have-nots join the back of the queue Wilkinson argues that private stem cell banking can significantly reduce their NHS costs over time and therefore reduce health insurance costs.
“To give just one example, to take stem cells from bone marrow it costs £30,000 per patient – for just one person!” she says. Under BioEden it costs under £4,000.
“It is our mission to make stem cell therapy an affordable reality. We want to help the NHS and talks are in progress. We are saying to them; ‘Tell us which childhood disease you are finding it impossible to treat – provide us with the milk teeth from those children, we will extract the stem cells from them and hold them for you free of charge and let you – the NHS – use them for research, which will reduce the cost’. We realise the NHS has so many issues at the moment but we can prove the value to them.”
As for how the health insurance industry feels about stem cell banking: Wilkinson says BioEden has been approached by and is in talks with providers.
“I believe in this industry change always comes slowly, which is unnecessary and limits intermediary opportunities” she says. “Stem cell banking from teeth is a high value, low cost life saving option, but what the providers and intermediaries need to realise is that once a child has lost all of their baby teeth, the opportunity is gone, and could have far reaching effects.
“We have a first class UK facility fully regulated by the Human Tissue Authority (HTA), for non-invasive tooth stem cell storage and our charges are considerably less than what some insurance companies were quoted for cord blood banking (limited compared to tooth stem cell therapeutic applications) over 10 years ago,” she says.
Wilkinson says she has learnt a lot from the intermediaries she has been talking to.
“It was one of the intermediaries who described this as a really great legacy gift. They know what they are talking about, they know the industry inside out and what works well with their clients. What is really great about the intermediaries we have been working with is they all provide an ongoing service to their clients. They are the ones saying this is a no-brainer. And it is – to my mind stem cell banking is, quite literally, storing good health for the future.”