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How German health care is set to become more digital in 2020

How German health care is set to become more digital in 2020
It will get easier to arrange doctor's appointments and access medical information online or via smartphone in Germany. Photo: DepositPhotos/WrightStudio
From video chats with doctors to accessing patient files online, here's how German health care is slated to digitalize in the coming year.

Booking holidays, buying tickets, making bank transfers on your mobile phone: For millions of people living in Germany, much of their everyday life has long occurred online. 

After years of wrangling between politicians and health care service providers, digital services are set to pick up speed in the healthcare system as well, bringing concrete improvements for patients. 

As part of a major healthcare overhaul project by Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn, German residents will be able to access their electronic patient files by January 1st, 2021.

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about making a doctor’s appointment in Germany

The statutory health insurance companies (GKV) and the consumer advice centres are also counting on doctor's practices to offer more digital services – from video consultation hours to online appointments.

“We need a modernization push in the medical practices,” said Stefanie Stoff-Ahnis, board member of the GKV-Spitzenverband, to DPA.

Stoff-Ahnis emphasized that doctor-patient consultations should remain the core of health care. Photo: Depositphotos/photography33

This is important in order to be able to utilize the opportunities offered by digitalization to improve patient care, she added. In recent decades, the reality of life has changed for many people.

“They shop online, work on the move and 24/7 has become the standard of service in many cases. In order to be able to meet increasing demands in this environment, digitalization is an opportunity for doctors and not a risk.”

The following is a look at how technical and digital services are likely to change over the next year in Germany's health care system.

READ ALSO: Patients in Germany to be given speedier doctor's appointments

Video consultation hours

“At the moment, doctors tend to regard this as an additional service,” said Stoff-Ahnis.

Video consultation services have long been taken for granted, yet this is slated to change, with doctors expecting 20 percent of treatments to occur through video consultation hours in five years. 

“Many parents would be happy if – when their child has diarrhoea and is vomiting – they didn’t have to go to the doctor's office, and could instead talk to their doctor via video,” said Stoff-Ahnis.

Online appointments

Lots of patients don't want to be dependent on telephone hours or answering machines when it comes to making doctor’s appointments.

Online appointments are a modern and patient-friendly offer, said the head of the Federation of German Consumer Organizations (vzbv), Klaus Müller, to dpa. 

But not everyone wants to click through digital calendars to set up an appointment. “That's why it depends on the combination,” said Müller.

It would be practical if patients could book appointments online in the evening after work, said the head of the National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians (KBV), Andreas Gassen, to dpa.

“Practices are certainly happy to offer such services, but they must also function technically,” he said.

Waiting room

“Digital notifications can also help with waiting at the doctor’s office, so that patients can go out for a while,” said Gassen. 

But long waiting times can be unavoidable.

“For example, one patient might come to the family doctor with a cold, another will be there seeking a follow-up prescription, and the next is looking for something more complex,” said Gassen. “This can't be planned for in advance.” 

READ ALSO: How Germany plans to revamp emergency care to beat hospital overcrowding

But waiting times should be kept to a reasonable amount, he said.

“Nobody complains if they leave the practice after five minutes if they were sitting in the waiting room ten minutes before,” said Gassen. “But waiting two hours for three minutes of a doctor's time is stupid.”

A man at a doctor's appointment in Hartha, Saxony in January 2019. Photo: DPA

Overcoming technical gaps

Other digital services generally depend on functioning technology, questions of liability and high data protection. 

“The speed is not so bad,” said Gassen. He added that most practices are now connected to an encrypted “data highway” – despite all the difficulties in getting the approved encryption devices.

Legal clarity is also necessary. Doctors take the protection of health data very seriously, and patients know that too. 

“It is understandable that no doctor wants to jeopardize this trust lightly with technology in which he doesn’t fully trust the data protection scope,” said Gassen. 

Consumer advocate Müller said that an increasing number of patients are seeking to use digital health services. 

“As long as no one can access the data who is not allowed to do so, this is a way forward for modern medicine,” he said.

Health insurance companies continue to emphasize that the conversation between patient and doctor is the core of medical care. 

Stoff-Ahnis said: “When we can overcome physical distances through modern technology, many more people can be helped.”

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