Women shun illness policies

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The Independent Online
WOMEN cannot get enough of health products. Not a month goes by without the release of a fitness video, anti-ageing cream or the launch of a glossy magazine. But there is one thing that health-conscious women do not seem willing to pay for: critical-illness insurance.

Critical illness insurance pays out a lump sum to the policyholder on the diagnosis of one of a list of conditions. These include cancer, heart disease, strokes, kidney failure and total permanent disability.

Women are as likely to suffer serious disease as men. While 38 per cent of men died of cardiovascular disease in 1992, the figure for women was only 1 per cent lower. Cancer claimed 28 per cent of men and 24 per cent of women.

It is estimated that one in five women will contract a critical illness before the age of 65, compared with one in four men.

But a sample of insurance companies shows women are not protecting themselves. Many are simply not aware of the risks. David Ashton, medical director of BMI Healthcare and an expert on women's cardiovascular diseases, says few women believe they are susceptible to heart attacks and strokes.

Although some women may not realise they are prone to heart attacks, the level of awareness about cervical and breast cancer is high. Yet women seem reluctant to pay for protection. Mercantile & General has published two reports on women and financial services, which found that while women are becoming increasingly financially aware, they lack the confidence to make important financial decisions. Women may now work and take responsibility for running the household, but they leave insurance to the man.

The blame also lies with insurers. The insurance industry has a traditional outlook, seeing the man as the breadwinner at the head of a nuclear family. Policies are designed for and marketed to men.

There are signs that some sectors of the industry are beginning to address the problem. Scottish Provident has produced an advertisement aimed at its independent financial advisers which specifically targets the women's market.

Pinnacle has launched Viva, a policy designed by women for women, which covers breast and cervical cancer. But whether through lack of demand or poor publicity, Pinnacle says it has been disappointed with the response from women.

Marks & Spencer has just entered the market with the launch of a serious- illness protection policy to be sold by direct mail. Unlike traditional insurance companies, M & S has a large female market; 68 per cent of its account-holders are women. However, it remains to be seen if the company's approach can attract women to critical-illness insurance.