Manulife to offer Canadians discounts for healthy activities

Manulife is set to launch a new insurance program to Canadians that offers discounts for healthy activities such as using fitness trackers, getting a flu shot and going to the doctor.

Tracking of lifestyle data could help save money, but also raises privacy concerns

Manulife has a new insurance program that will use wearable fitness-tracking devices to offer reward points and discounts to policyholders who live healthy lifestyles. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

Manulife is set to launch a new insurance program for Canadians that rewards the use of fitness trackers, getting a flu shot and going to the doctor with discounts for their healthy living.

The Waterloo, Ont.-based insurance giant is partnering with Vitality Group to bring the program to Canada, after rolling out similar systems in parts of Africa, Asia and the United States.

The sign-up process is similar to many insurance policies, in that applicants take an online test to determine their level of overall health and then are offered a premium. Once enrolled, members will immediately begin accumulating points each time they complete health-related activities such as exercising, getting an annual health screening or even a flu shot.

"The more engaged they are with the program and involved in living a healthier lifestyle, the more points they can accumulate to earn other rewards and discounts from leading retailers," the company said in a release.

Unlike other insurance plans, which largely rely on a self-verifying questionnaire and then claims activity to set rates, the Vitality program will work with wearable fitness-tracking devices such as Fitbit to monitor healthy living activities, and offer reward points or insurance discounts as the policy evolves.

"Manulife is moving away from being a traditional insurance company to one that actively partners with customers to help them achieve overall well-being, including physical and financial health," Manulife Canada's CEO Marianne Harrison said. 

Manulife's U.S. unit, John Hancock, offered a similar program to American clients last year, in which discounts of up to 15 per cent are possible. While details of the program are still being ironed out, Canadian policyholders will have the option of saving on insurance and also getting reward points to be used with retailers.

"We've found that when people purchase an integrated life insurance product and participate in the program, they are motivated to set goals and take steps to healthy living," Vitality CEO Alan Pollard said.

In an interview, Manulife's senior vice-president of investment products Paul Lorentz said consumers have been clamouring for a product like this. "Consumers are quite excited about it," he said. "Many are living healthy lives already — they're just not being rewarded for it."

He adds that fitness trackers such as Fitbit aren't necessary for the program — a member can earn reward points by doing other things that don't include wearable devices.

Privacy concerns

But at least one privacy expert says the notion of a company collecting personal data for their own private commercial use is problematic.

Dr. Avner Levin, professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto, says the program sounds a lot like some tried in similar industries, which start out as benign and then evolve into something insidious.

"Just as we worry in the auto insurance sector when they rolled out these usage-based devices, they start out as a positive incentive, but then it morphs from a carrot into a stick," he said in an interview. "The stick is you are going to lose some coverage or are going to have to pay an additional premium because you are deemed to be less healthy," he said.

"It's a bit like mission creep," he said. "You put a GPS box in a car [for safety reasons] to track where vehicles are, but then you end up berating an employee for taking too long on their break to get coffee."