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Cigna reboots with WhatsApp/chatbot mashup

The U.S. firm is leveraging WhatsApp business API and A.I. to get a leg up in Hong Kong health insurance.

Yuman Chan, Cigna

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Cigna is the first insurer in Hong Kong to deploy WhatsApp Business API, a feature introduced by the Facebook-owned messaging platform in December last year. 

WhatsApp Business API allows an enterprise to manage one-to-one communication with customers using the messaging app. With over 1.5 billion monthly active users, WhatsApp is the largest messaging platform in the world. In markets such as Hong Kong, it is the dominant messenger (see chart*).

Source: Hootsuite

What’s the importance of APIs? Applied program interfaces connect two different networks. A Cigna customer would normally need to log into the company’s app or website to receive service. But Cigna has now linked its server to WhatsApp, the favorite communication channel for Hong Kong people.

Adding chatbots

WhatsApp built its Business API service for large businesses to easily handle big volumes of notifications. For example, Booking.com and Wish use WhatsApp API to send booking confirmations and shipping information to individuals.

Cigna took this a step forward. It has hired Hong Kong fintech Clare.AI to build a Cantonese-language chatbot to field customer inquiries. The chatbot uses APIs to source answers directly from Cigna’s database, so there is no human intervention.

Its first use case is to help customers find a doctor.

Yuman Chan, Cigna’s CEO for Hong Kong, says the company routinely gets such inquiries, and it wanted a way to automate the process. It was also an easy way to begin working with artificial-intelligence tools.

It chose Clare.AI because of its local-language capabilities and its reliable natural language recognition, says Johnson Wong, Cigna’s senior manager for transformation.

“For some other [vendor] solutions, if I asked a question a bit differently from the standard question, they can’t answer – especially if it’s in Cantonese,” said Wong.

Bianca Ho, co-founder of Clare.AI, says security and compliance are also important components to providing chatbots to financial institutions.
Clare.AI doesn’t keep or use data with personal information. It uses aggregate data to provide analytics.

On-premises database

WhatsApp’s messages are encrypted end-to-end. Therefore only the two parties in a communication can see whatever content is stored on WhatsApp’s database.

For Business API, the data is stored on the servers of the corporate client (Cigna).

“It’s the consumer and Cigna and Cigna’s database that have the information,” Ho said.

Cigna launched its WhatsApp chatbot in April, and since then it has handled about 1,000 queries a week related to “find me a doctor”. The company is working to build out more functionality over the messenger, including claims submissions for both individual and group customers.

It will therefore need its chatbot to field questions around policy administration, so that software can match tasks for call centers such as informing customers about policy features, upcoming premium amounts, and managing routines such as changing addresses.

Wong says Cigna has the infrastructure ready for the automated process.

“If you ask about your claims, we can easily retrieve the data from the back end to the top. We’ve built the core already,” Wong said. 

Its WhatsApp chatbot will then help it collect data based on customer questions, said Chan. For example, if customers ask about particular doctors, they could potentially be added to the insurer’s panel of clinics.

Doctor Now

Cigna is also working with a Hong Kong telemedicine company called Doctor Now. This began as a voluntary service created by local doctors for elderly people. Cigna is the first insurance company to work with the service and commercialize it.

The idea is to let patients receive a consultation from licensed doctors via the app at home, instead of having to go to a hospital and wait in a queue. They can also get medicine shipped to their residence.

The business model is similar to Ping An Good Doctor, while Cigna aims at the health-insurance market for local, Cantonese-speaking residents.

Good Doctor is huge in mainland China, where it provides teleconsulting, appointment bookings, and medicine home deliveries. The app serves 265 million users, as of December.

The unit behind Good Doctor, Ping An Healthcare and Technology, listed in Hong Kong last year; the app is now available in Hong Kong and Singapore, and will soon enter Thailand, although its clientele remains mostly mainland Chinese residents or visitors.

WeChat’s parent, Tencent, has its own healthcare app in China called WeDoctor, or Guahao, but which relies on a British health-tech company, Babylon, for doctor consultations. It claims 27 million monthly active users. WeDoctor has announced plans to set up a “Greater Bay Area” business unit for Hong Kong and Macau, but has yet to launch.

Of course, in mainland China, Ping An and Tencent have built digital health empires on the back of poor traditional healthcare infrastructure, vast reservoirs of people (=data), and looser data privacy rules.

Hongkongers have access to doctors already. Its public hospitals have some of the same problems: with an aging population, doctors can be overwhelmed. But the system functions and is widely available. Cigna is a relatively small player in this market: according to Insurance Authority statistics (most recent data available only for 2017), it ranked 23rd in gross premiums. ( For direct medical business, it was ranked sixth in 2018).  

It might be adding a feature similar to Ping An’s playbook but its real target looks to be gaining market share against its larger, traditional rivals.


*None of the internet companies release statistics but Hootsuite graphics and unattributable Reddit opinions suggest WhatsApp leads in Hong Kong thanks to a longer history and a local English-friendly culture, but WeChat is catching up and Japan’s Line also has traction.

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Cigna reboots with WhatsApp/chatbot mashup