Doctor's Orders Is Big Data Good for Our Health?

The German healthcare sector has been dragging its feet for years on the issue of digitizing health records, not least because of data security management. Now the government is stepping in with a new law to get this modernization underway.  
Digitizing healthcare data is an uphill struggle in Germany.

If German Health Minister Herman Gröhe has his way, every citizen in Germany will soon be carrying a card that contains all their personal healthcare data.

Mr. Gröhe, a member of the Christian Democrats, is aiming to push through a law that will mean the complete digitalization of the healthcare sector. This new electronic system would link doctors, hospitals and pharmacies, and provide greater efficiency, transparency and higher quality of treatment.

Players in the healthcare field have shown so little interest in the digitization program, which has been in the works since 2001, that it has prompted the government to turn to legislation to get the ball rolling.

Mr. Gröhe wants to link the healthcare sector to the telematics infrastructure, building a secure, central data highway that "can be developed as the definitive infrastructure for the German healthcare system," according to the draft law.

This law takes us at least a step further in finally bringing the communication side of the healthcare system into the 21st century. Official, Central Federal Association of Health Insurance Funds.

The law is primarily intended to support "the speedy introduction of useful applications," the draft legislation reads. Under the proposed legislation, doctors and hospitals would receive additional payments for creating an emergency dataset or sending out dismissal letters by e-mail instead of on paper.

This is ambitious, because it was only recently that almost every person with health insurance received an electronic health card, and the devices needed to scan the cards were only recently installed in doctors' offices and hospitals. But applications like electronic receipts and patient files aren’t working yet.

Corporations like Google have been making money with health data for some time.

Addressing the issue at an IT summit last year, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that it was imperative that Germany take a leading role in the "key battle" over big data in business. The spokesman for digital issues in the CDU parliamentary group, Thomas Jarzombek, wants "every area to be examined to determine whether we can use anonymous data to benefit society as a whole."

The new system would provide not only doctors and pharmacists access to medical histories and drug information, but also members of unlicensed healthcare professions like physical therapists and outpatient nursing services.

Health researchers would also gain access to a treasure trove of treatment data for millions of patients a year. "This law takes us at least a step further in finally bringing the communication side of the healthcare system into the 21st century," said an official with the Central Federal Association of Health Insurance Funds.

Merely the fact that an e-health law is now being submitted after all these years is a good sign, said Jürgen Graalmann, the head of the Federal Association of Local Health Insurance Funds. But he believes that the draft legislation is half-hearted.

Health insurance companies are not convinced that the secure data highway will be a success. "There cannot be any parallel networks that continue to operate at questionable security levels," warned Florian Lanz of the Central Federal Association of Health Insurance Funds, citing the data network of the Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians, which represents 60,000 doctors.

Franz Knieps, head of the Association of Company Health Insurance Funds, said: "As long as there are no clear rules on when which electronic application has to be used, I don't think this will succeed."

However, CDU health expert Jens Spahn sees the law as a launch point for many new business models. He also wants to open up the new data infrastructure to private providers in the future.

"It's really time we stepped up the pace with the electronic health card," he said, noting that it needed to be "designed to be open, so that external services and applications from startups can easily connect to it." That, he said, would create the conditions for a "real export hit."


Peter Thelen and Daniel Delhaes are Handelsblatt's parliamentary correspondents in Berlin. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected]