Digitization in Healthcare: What Does E-Health Mean for the German Healthcare System?

The electronic patient record, wearables and apps for measuring health data, medical consultations via video chat – these are just a few examples of digitization measures that are currently turning the healthcare market upside down. The Corona pandemic is estimated to have accelerated digitization processes by two years. IT sectors in the healthcare market are also growing at an average rate of 6%, much faster than any other sector in the healthcare market.

Opportunities and challenges

Digital technologies offer new diagnostic and treatment options, facilitate communication between physicians, healthcare providers and patients, and make healthcare data more measurable. The challenges facing the German healthcare system and almost all healthcare systems in the Western world, including demographic change, a shortage of healthcare professionals and an explosion in healthcare costs, can be better addressed with the help of digitization.

Reducing risks with secure infrastructures

However, the basis of all digital technologies is personal (healthcare) data, which also represents one of the greatest risks. Many Germans fear data misuse, for example, which is why data protection must play a central role in all areas of healthcare. In order to create a secure, reliable and comprehensive digital infrastructure (dt. TI) at the federal level, the German government has commissioned gematik to expand and manage it. The Act on Secure Digital Communication and Applications in Healthcare (E-Health Act) has set the course for this. Other legal measures include the Appointment Service and Care Act (dt. TSVG), the Patient Data Protection Act (dt. PDSG) and the Digital Care and Nursing Modernization Act (dt. DVPMG), which came into force in June 2021.

Example electronic patient record (ePA): How does it help specifically?

On January 1, 2021, the electronic patient record (dt. ePA) was introduced in Germany as a digital place to store relevant health data. After a test phase, it will soon be fully available to all insured persons free of charge and on a voluntary basis. In the case of statutorily insured persons, contract medical service providers are legally obligated to fill the ePA. Data in the ePA is transmitted via secure telematics infrastructure and patients decide who has access to the data. The data stored includes electronic doctor’s letters from primary care physicians and specialists, discharge letters from hospitals, laboratory values and X-rays, the emergency data record, electronic medication plans, among others. From January 1, 2022, the maternity passport, vaccination record, children’s examination booklet and dental bonus booklet will be added.

The ePA thus makes it possible to provide relevant health data in digital form to practitioners and patients more easily and on the move. If a patient needs specialist treatment, for example, missing documents can be identified at the appointment-making stage and the patient can be referred to another specialist. In addition, between treatments by different specialists, documents no longer need to be requested by fax, but only released by the patient in his or her ePA. Overall, obsolete appointments and long waiting times in doctors’ offices can be avoided, while the quality of treatment remains the same with the focus on important appointments. The more efficient processes not only save patients time and effort, but also relieve medical practices and health insurers through cost savings.

The state of digitization in Germany

In an international comparison, Germany is far behind in terms of digitization. In Sweden, Denmark and Estonia, doctors have been sending prescriptions electronically to patients or directly to pharmacies for years. In the United Kingdom, the NHS is cooperating with Google to use artificial intelligence to make data on treatment successes, etc., available. However, according to a 2018 survey by pwc, 61% of insured persons consider the German healthcare system to be well positioned in terms of digital technologies. Germany is still at the beginning of an exciting development.

The current S7 study Digital Solutions in the Healthcare Market: Costs Down, Sales Up (August 2021) shows how digital solutions can support cost savings and efficiency increases and what opportunities already exist in the market.