All valuable assets should be protected

FEW people question the need to insure their jewellery and other valuable belongings. Yet, the most valuable possession of all - our health - is often given little thought when it comes to insurance.

But ill health is inevitable and medical costs can be crippling. One of the benefits of a wealthy society is being able to choose private medical care and protection for your family in the form of life insurance.

Yet life insurance remains relatively unpopular, stigmatised by the foot-in-the-door salesmen and the old-fashioned idea that it is somehow ''unlucky'' to insure against personal disaster.

The main purpose of insurance is to provide financial security against uncertainty, and Hongkong's insurance industry has recorded a growth rate of more than 30 per cent over the past 10 years.

People have become aware of escalating medical costs and the need for insurance, while insurance companies have diversified and modified their products to meet these growing needs.

The Government's Green Paper, now in its final stages, examines funding for the public health care sector. It will give an indication of government expectations for the flow from the public to the private sector.

One controversial idea is the option to make B class beds, in the public sector, insurable. A move of this kind would reverse the trend from private back to public health care, according to Mr Keith Pearson, managing director of BUPA in Hongkong.

He would like to see the private sector made more attractive to those who can afford it.

In terms of corporate health schemes for employees, coverage is unlikely to be comprehensive. Increasingly however, coverage includes maternity, dental, optical and emergency evacuation.

Is life insurance essential? Insurers admit that it probably is not, if you have no dependents and no desire to leave a huge bequest to a favourite charity, for example.

Theoretically, the amount saved during a lifetime should cover retirement. But for those with a family Mr Miles Standish, a director of Towry Law International financial advisers, had the following advice.

''Most people insure their house or their car and consider it money well-spent,'' he said.

''Many people consider life insurance optional but, in fact, it is solid protection for your family.'' In Hongkong, it may be considered unlucky to have insurance; there is the notion that this is tempting fate.

In the last 20 years life cover and insurance companies have changed completely.

People demand a genuine investment return, and the top companies offer a broad range to cater for most needs.

When considering life insurance as investment, Mr Alan Hayes, of Hongkong Guardian Life Assurance, said: ''If you pay premiums on a monthly, or even an annual basis, you are led into a savings pattern which becomes a good habit.'' Chairman of the Medical Insurance Association of Hongkong, Mr Nick Donne, said although 25 per cent of people here went to private hospitals, only 12 per cent were insured.

With 13 per cent opting to pay for their treatment in full, there is obviously a large market for medical insurance.

One of the biggest problems seems to be the escalating medical costs which make it impossible for insurers to provide comprehensive cover.

This week, the Hongkong Federation of Insurers issued the latest edition of its booklet Personal Insurance. Available from today, the booklet aims to promote personal insurance and give advice to consumers on a topic that often seems misleading and bewildering.