German health minister proposes further digitization of healthcare

The German Federal Minister of Health Hermann Gröhe has proposed further digitization in healthcare, including tele-medicine, data infrastructure and personalized medicine as key steps towards improving Germany’s healthcare system. He made the proposal in a guest contribution to the FAZ newspaper on 9 January 2017. Common to the minister’s suggestions is the once-only principle, which would allow health information to be bundled and re-used in order to achieve more reliable diagnostics and better healthcare outcomes:

“Currently, the majority of the five billion healthcare documents per year in Germany are transmitted between doctors' offices, laboratories and hospitals by fax or paper mail. If we digitally connect the 150,000 healthcare practices, 2.3 million other healthcare professions, 2000 hospitals, 20,000 pharmacies and over 70 million health insurance users, data protection will improve significantly. In the future, all digitally recorded medical data will be double-encrypted and access by physicians will be logged. This system, which is laid down in the German e-Health Law, is currently being tested.”


Based on the once-only principle, the minister’s aim is to unify existing data structures and make aggregated healthcare data usable to allow comparisons with the personal data of individual patients. Only in this way can diseases and risks be recognized and treated at an early stage. Likewise, the ability to collect data decentrally, e.g. via mobile devices, and transmit it to medical specialists located elsewhere, can improve the healthcare quality for immobilized patients, or people living in rural areas.

Moreover, the minister proposed the creation of a German health portal to offer reliable health information on the Internet. Gröhe sees the need for a new central point of contact online:

"We need a German health portal that provides all the important information about the healthcare system – in high quality and at the same time understandable and easy to grasp."

Existing institutions such as the Federal Center for Health Education (BZgA) already offer a wealth of information. According to Gröhe, this information should be bundled, and thus become easier to find online. This shall be a key step towards a comprehensive “Digital Healthcare Agenda” for Germany, which puts the patient’s interest, their access to quality healthcare, as well as their self-determination and safety front and center.

The Federal Center for Health Education (BZgA) also welcomed the minister’s proposal for a German health portal, as confirmed by a spokesperson:

"Due to the overwhelming wealth of health information on the Internet, it is important that neutral, independent and trustworthy information is easy to find. Such a health portal would be a useful alternative to search engine results for healthcare requests, especially since these are often underpinned by commercial and other interests."

Thereby, the patient’s health competency and knowledge are key for a responsible handling of the private data, which increasingly become necessary by the ongoing digitization of healthcare. Both, minister Gröhe and the BZgA stress that any content of a health portal must follow transparent criteria of objectivity and scientifically proven evidence.

In fact, German health insurers have already started to develop digital healthcare services, as the speaker of the Federal Association of Internet Medicine, Sebastian Vorberg confirms:

"Last year, in particular, the TK, the AOK Nordost and the Barmer GEK have already started to support or develop digital patient records.”

The enormous potential of the digitization of the healthcare sector has been also identified by the market, with significant amounts of financing flowing into a multitude of healthcare start-ups. However, only if the regulatory framework in Germany and Europe continues to be modernized in line with the once-only principle, this potential can be fully utilized for the benefit of the patients.

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