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CIO interview: Marcella Flood, head of digital transformation, Allianz Care

Insurance giant’s international healthcare division is dealing with legacy systems while working on a data-led transformation that is underpinned by standards

Allianz Care is developing a wide-ranging data analytics strategy as part of a broader digital transformation plan focused on improving customer experience and visibility. 

The company is the international healthcare division of insurance giant Allianz, where a group-wide “digital by default” agenda is under way. For International Health, the plan is led by Marcella Flood, head of digital transformation at the company.

From a customer perspective, the company’s primary focus is B2B2C (business to business to consumer) – so the entities that buy the firm’s products are often large organisations offering health insurance as part of remuneration packages. 

The wide-ranging digital vision for the firm focuses on creating end-to-end digital experiences led by data, says Flood. The plan will touch various stakeholders, including the firm’s staff, group scheme managers who are directly involved in the purchase and administration of Allianz services, as well as policyholders and their family members. 

“It’s a long journey, that we have broken into multiple horizons,” Flood tells Computer Weekly. 

The team at Allianz’s international healthcare arm is nearing the end of what Flood calls the first horizon, which involves putting in the basics required to enable the digital agenda and will be followed by a series of other programmes. The final phase of the plan, and the end goal, is about using data to support decision-making, paperless administration, intuitive self-service and enhanced wellbeing and health experiences for members.

Within the next three to four months, the firm will begin creating a shared portal for its provider network, which will support members in accessing their “cashless” network, and the healthcare providers in their administration tasks, while also automating decision-making around insurance claims. 

Flood and her team are now in the early planning stages of digitising health and wellness services. “We are looking into the journey of the member around helping them stay well – how to digitise that programmatically and gather the data to help them stay on track with their wellness,” she says.

“When it comes to applying digital and technology to connecting health as a service for people, there are so many opportunities”

Marcella Flood, Allianz Care

The team has already ticked some boxes towards that digital vision, with a symptom checker and some online medical services already in place.

“We are thinking of what would that look like and how do we make it all seamless,” says Flood. “We are just at the very, very early stages of thinking it all through.”

Some of the technologies, partners and business models within digital health and wellness are also very new, so the start of the innovation curve also means that the team’s decisions must be considered carefully. 

“It is probably too early to invest heavily in this area of our digital plan, so we will pilot, test and play with different concepts and ensure that we are at the front of certain technologies,” says Flood. “We want to be ready when that model becomes clearer, so we can still be in a leading position.”

Tackling data issues 

Data underpins Allianz Care’s entire digital vision, but to achieve its final goal, there are other, arguably less attractive, jobs to be done first. According to Flood, the first stage is about collecting at the source and ensuring the information is digitised in a consistent format – which is not always easy. 

That would mean, for example, making sure the various parties involved in the insurance chain, such as hospitals, provide data to Allianz in the same format. Given that the company deals with tens of thousands of these institutions working under their own data standards, the job is increasingly complex, says Flood. 

“Naturally, the hospitals deal with many insurers,  but there is no standard in the market about what a claim sheet should look like or what a new policy record should look like or what a product record should look like,” she says.

“So each insurer is currently defining their standards and building the API [application programming interface] database and all of those kinds of connections. However, then the hospital provider is left needing to satisfy multiple different versions.” 

The first task is to try to get the data into a usable format, says Flood. This is followed by a process of qualifying that information, which could, for example, involve asking providers to give information on claims about the diagnosis and the treatment, using standardised codes. 

 “Without usable and qualified data, you don’t have enough information in the claim to make decisions,” says Flood. “So you need to draw a lot of data together, and that’s why there is a lot of work going on around that.”

Behind the scenes 

Cleaning data and qualifying it with all the rich datasets that Allianz Care manages is a challenge. Here, manual intervention can introduce complexity, says Flood. 

“You can’t use that intellectual knowledge unless you have the treatment and the diagnosis in a coded format from the provider in the first instance,” she says. “You don’t want some data coming in and someone having to specifically look at it, look up a code and insert it into the machine to make a decision. 

“That’s probably the biggest challenge – bringing all those partners on board and getting the data in the format you want. Having all of your qualified data and going through that process of connecting the dots on all of the incoming information is key.”

Standardisation is another issue to consider when planning data products, she says. That is especially true when needing to deliver to the bespoke requirements of some of Allianz’s bigger clients, who naturally require custom-built instances of a product.  

“You are trying to balance meeting the market demands and standardising product frameworks, so we are striving towards a modularisation of our product framework, a bit like Lego bricks,” says Flood.

Making data available for all the staff who need access to it is a process that Flood calls “democratisation of data” and is one of the holy grails of the overall initiative. But it is also something that brings challenges, given the data governance implications. 

“We have especially sensitive data on our systems and treat the correct management of all our data with hyper-care. You can’t just make it available to everybody and have to be very careful about who within the company can see what,” she says. “Data quality and governance are important priorities.”

Dealing with legacy

But going digital goes beyond enhancing front-end processes and is also about digitising the back end – including eliminating the paperwork generated by policy contracting and administration, as well as reducing manual task processing and increasing internal efficiency. 

“To achieve our digital transformation, we must also address our legacy systems, and this can be time consuming and expensive”, Flood says.

To address this the firm’s technology arm, Allianz Technology, has derived a concept called a “two-speed architecture” which, according to Flood, allows the digital team freedom to drive forward with their digital plans at speed. At the core of this concept is a layered architecture, which allows the interaction layers to be independent of the back-end.

“To handle the fact that data isn’t always the way we might like it, we have found ways to work around that by creating structures that help to put a skeleton around how systems, products, policies and all of our estate is structured today, so that we can still progress,” says Flood. 

This, says Flood, is the concept of architecture from a data point of view in action, with layers between the front-end and back-end legacies.

“We are still also working on the back end, how it’s structured and how the data is formed,” she says. “However, it’s a slower transition than you can work at when it comes to the front end. So we’ve created this concept of layers that allows you to plug and play at the back end and separate it from front-end development. 

“That is working for us. Any layer you have to connect to slows you down a bit, but it allows you to be independent of the back-end system.”

Flood adds: “I am really pleased with the momentum we are building. We have made some hard choices from a technology point of view to build on a good, solid, technical architecture, but now that we see the benefits of that, we are able to have much reuse of the work we have already built.”

Introducing a data culture

In the coming year, Flood expects Allianz Care to have made “strong progress” on connecting its medical network, and delivering to stakeholders modern self-service interfaces. She hopes access to information will be transparent and digitised. This, in turn, is expected to drive internal efficiencies, which will be reflected in the business’s bottom line. 

“Insurance is a high-volume, low-margin business,” says Flood. “Moreover, risk carrying is at the core of the business model, so being able to deliver consistently on our claims ratio and our operations ratio, while being able to tighten down expense ratios, is fundamentally key for our business. 

“We will be well on our way within the next year in terms of driving efficiencies, alongside really beginning to close off the gaps in our customer journeys and creating that end-to-end digital experience.”

But making data available to those who need it – the democratisation aspect – is an area that will require more work, says the IT executive. 

 “It’s about striving to have a deep data capability all across the business. To reach a position where our staff have the tools and capabilities to naturally go and do data searches and find answers to questions that they have, by themselves. To achieve this goal, we have loads more to do.”

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Indeed, the work around moving to a data-led business has some significant demands that have little to do with technology, but have a direct impact on the success of Flood’s digital transformation plan.  

“The business challenge is so fundamental concerning what it changes regarding how the organisation operates, how it thinks, to skills that it needs, how it creates its products,” she says.

“Everything in the business needs to shift around a digital offering if you’re really serious about it. There are demands on the sales team within a certain set of parameters on the products that they’re selling. There are demands on their skills to be able to engage a customer, understand what their pain points are and then create an engaging experience for them. These things are challenges for the business, not so much for the IT department.”

The Allianz group is well connected internally, says Flood, and there are many standards and best practices around the digital-by-default plan that help her convey the benefits of data-led transformation. However, as many of her peers leading similar projects will say, the work is never really done.  

“We are making really good headway, but it’s like hill walking: you know it’s going to be quite a journey, and you march up the hill but as you get to the top, you see another hill and up you go again,” she says. “I have three horizons, and I’m on my second, planning my third. No doubt at all that once I’m in implementation for the third, I will be planning for the fourth and the fifth. 

“When it comes to applying digital and technology to connecting health as a service for people, there are so many opportunities. As technology becomes more adaptable and things become more connected, the work becomes never-ending. At the same time, it is all really exciting.”

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