6 minute read
15 Mar 2021
11:00 am

In conversation with Discovery Life’s Chief Medical Officer


COVID-19 has fundamentally altered the ways of the world. We chatted to Dr Maritha van der Walt, Discovery Life’s Chief Medical Officer, to get her clinical perspective on this incredible challenge we all face today.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an active global health concern, currently impacting 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 touching more and more lives – and at an increasing scale.

Since this is a health challenge of considerable proportions, how we as a global population go about reducing infection and mortality rates in the future will be key. Together with protective measures, such as those offered by life insurance plans, methods to weather the challenges that come with it can be put in place.

As an insurance group, Discovery is well-positioned to understand 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 current and foreseeable quality of life? Dr Van der Walt shares a few insights and thoughts with us.

What clinically-related research has Discovery done since the start of the pandemic in South Africa?

“Discovery Health and Discovery Life have worked together closely to identify who our high-risk clients and members may be. Using this information on our databases, we then sent out communication to individually inform them about COVID-19 and how to go about practicing effective prevention measures,” says Dr Van der Walt.

“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 Discovery Health and Discovery Life businesses can better guide members and policyholders through this period as a way to help lower potential risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19.”

Collectively, what the model has been able to show is that if a person falls ill, their risk of needing hospitalisation may increase considerably depending on the risk factors they have. These risk 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 considerably with healthy doses of physical activity. This is where the Vitality programme can be used to encourage members and policyholders to maintain a healthy lifestyle with good nutrition and exercise.

“Unfortunately, we have also seen that there are young, healthy people experiencing severe COVID-19 infections. This means that everybody, regardless of age or co-morbidities, must follow all of the precautionary and preventative 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 to 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, whilst maintaining the highest standards of hygiene,” says Dr van der Walt.

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

One noticeable factor is that South Africa’s mortality rate is currently around 1.4%. With recent case numbers now over 1 522 697 (as at 09 March 2021), the country’s recovery rate of approximately 92% is also more or less in line with the global average.

“Fortunately, our case fatality rate in South Africa is well below the international statistic, but that does not mean that we can be complacent,” says Dr Van der Walt.

“The second wave is thankfully subsiding, but further waves can be expected. 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,” she adds.

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

When it comes to protection, little can do what well-practiced prevention measures can. “Prevention through social distancing, wearing of masks, hand washing and sanitising remains the best way to prevent this disease from spreading,” says Dr van der Walt.

“Strict hygiene protocols are in place wherever our clients are in contact with Discovery Life employees.”

Discovery Life has also assessed its current product range and identified other ways clients can be better protected through their plans. This is where the newly developed Multi-organ Benefit came into being. Within the Severe Illness Benefit, this market-first product protects against acute multi-organ failure due to an illness like COVID-19. Such a 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 most probably have to live with this virus for the foreseeable future. COVID-19 Vaccines are currently being tested and have been administered to millions of people in the world. The rollout plan in South Africa is commencing very soon by vaccinating our frontline health care workers first. This will take some time to complete, so the non-pharmacological measures remain our biggest weapon against this unpredictable and changing disease,” Dr van der Walt says.

“In the meantime, it is up to every one of us to try and prevent contracting COVID-19 and continue to play our part in preventing transmission of the virus. This way we can prevent the hospitals and health services from getting overwhelmed.”

What are some of the key learnings that we can use in the future?

“One of the biggest things I think we’ve learned is that we are all in this together. We all have to play our part on an individual level. All role players – government, private and public sector, organised labour and so on – have to work together to overcome this pandemic.”

“We have seen heart-warming outreach projects, as well as much more sharing and caring than ever before. It is 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 learnings and build on them,” she adds.


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