Why employee cancer risk and prevention should feature in wellbeing programmes

By Tracey Ward, Head of Business Development & Marketing at Generali UK Employee Benefits

UK cancer treatment and diagnosis services are in crisis in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which caused around three million people to miss routine screening appointments in the first six months and discouraged many more from checking out their symptoms.[i]

The impact the resulting backlog could have on companies and their employees was cited as a major concern by the HR and line managers who attended a recent webinar led by Professor Gordon Wishart, Chief Medical Officer at Generali’s wellbeing partner Check4Cancer (C4C).*

Three quarters of the attendees have seen an increase in cancer claims on workplace policies over the last three years. And all of them said they were “somewhat concerned” or “very concerned” about the pandemic pushing these numbers higher still.

The cancer crisis

Half the people in the UK born after 1960 will get cancer at some point in their lives. But cancer services in the UK were already faltering pre Covid-19, according to Cancer Research UK.

“There were concerns about the lack of early detection services and access to the very best care within the NHS,” said Professor Wishart, whose webinar theme was the current challenges facing the UK, and the practical measures that employers can take to support their employees.

“Now, there is a huge backlog, and the NHS is really struggling to catch up,” he adds. “There are usually around 360,000 new cancer cases diagnosed each year in the UK, about 125,000 of which are in men and women under the age of 65 [of working age, in other words],” said Professor Wishart.

“But data from NHS England shows that, in 2020, 40,000 fewer cancers were diagnosed than in the previous year, including almost 8,000 fewer screen-detected cancers from NHS screening programmes.”

The employer’s role

It has been estimated that for every four-week delay in cancer diagnosis, an individual’s chances of survival fall by 10%.[ii] So, by helping employees to detect cancers sooner, employers can save lives – as well as money.

“Early detection means less treatment is needed and also reduces the amount of time needed off work,” added Professor Wishart. “It means a much greater chance of recovery and helps to keep insurers’ costs down. So, there is a compelling investment case for employee screening.”

A screening programme is not the only way employers can work with insurers and wellbeing providers to reduce cancer claims, though.

One of the easiest ways to help people avoid late cancer diagnoses is to raise awareness about tell-tale signs and risk factors.

“There is a lot employers can do to raise awareness of signs and symptoms to look out for,” commented Professor Wishart. “The workplace is a good place to start difficult discussions, so employers can help by offering education about when people should get themselves checked out.”

There’s now greater understanding and appreciation that age isn’t the only risk factor when it comes to cancer.

Offering information about behaviours that increase your risk of developing certain types of cancer represents a positive step.

“Alcohol, for example, is associated with developing breast and bowel cancer,” said Professor Wishart. “Educating people about such risks could help to encourage them to change their behaviour.”

DNA testing can also be an early indicator, as can face-to-face consultations. But DNA tests, in particular, are expensive, so Professor Wishart therefore suggests trying to identify those in need of such diagnostic services via a cancer risk questionnaire.

“This cost-effective approach allows you to offer support and, if necessary, diagnostics to those at higher risk of developing different cancers, while also helping people to learn more about cancer and perhaps change their behaviours as a result,” he added.

MyCancer Risk questionnaire

Check4Cancer has developed a MyCancerRisk questionnaire that takes between five and 20 minutes to complete and is designed to detect lifestyle and family history risk factors.

“It is dynamic, so you are only asked certain questions if your responses suggest more information is required,” explained Professor Wishart.

All clients who complete the questionnaire get access to a cancer hub of information to help increase awareness of the signs and symptoms of common cancers.

And those people with identified risk factors receive advice on risk reduction strategies and behavioural change programmes where appropriate.

Those at higher risk can also be supplied with home testing kits for bowel, lung or prostate cancer or referred to a clinic for tests where a skin cancer or breast cancer risk is identified.

What else is available to employers?

Check4Cancer’s services can be purchased directly or, for Generali’s group income protection clients, via fund matching as part of our Wellbeing Investment Matching Initiative. Other services available via WIM include Bupa’s preventative care and early detection options; available as a bolt-on to an existing insurance policy, or purchased as a standalone service.

Dr Petra Simic, a Medical Director for Bupa, explains that Bupa takes a multi-pronged approach. The first covers preventative measures, where the provider works with employees to reduce their risk of developing cancer.

“For example, our health assessments include time with a doctor and health advisers, who help people set personal goals like quitting smoking, cutting back on drinking, or getting more exercise.

“Our advisors then provide follow-up calls to help people stay on track.

“To support this, we also provide lifestyle training and engagement tools, like managers’ guides, to help businesses lead their own colleague wellbeing strategies.

“The second tool is to provide screening for common cancers such as breast, cervical, prostate and bowel cancer. By using evidence-based tools, we may be able to detect these cancers early, which can significantly improve the chances of successful treatment.

So, in Bupa’s experience, what’s the secret to success of such a prevention and early detection strategy?

Dr Simic continues: “Every business is different, so there’s no one-size fits all approach to our support. Instead, we work with businesses to find the benefits that are right for them.

“Once the benefits are agreed, it’s important to drive engagement. This isn’t just about ensuring that colleagues know what they’re entitled to, but encouraging them to make best use of these benefits.

“A lot of this comes down to workplace culture. Wellbeing strategies work best when managers lead by example, taking time to attend doctor’s appointments and health assessments, and encouraging their team to do the same.

“We work with businesses on colleague engagement, to help them find ways to keep colleagues happy, healthy and motivated.”

*To receive a recording of the 45-minute Q&A with Professor Wishart of Check4Cancer entitled ‘Employee cancer screening as part of wellbeing strategy’ please email [email protected].

[i] Cancer Research UK, September 2020: https://news.cancerresearchuk.org/2020/09/11/whats-happened-to-cancer-services-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/

[ii] British Medical Journal, November 2020: https://www.bmj.com/company/newsroom/every-month-delayed-in-cancer-treatment-can-raise-risk-of-death-by-around-10/