An article by Adel Al-Saleh, Member of the Deutsche Telekom AG Board of Management and CEO of T-Systems on Digitalization in healthcare.
Everybody's talking about digitalization. Digitalization is not just a passing fashion; It's here to stay, and it's already found its way into most areas of people's lives in Germany. Healthcare is an exception in this regard, however. In Germany's healthcare system, digitalization has not kept pace with other countries' efforts in this field - Scandinavia, the UK, the Netherlands and the US are way ahead. But this will soon change. This year, Germany is rolling out its new Telematics Infrastructure (TI), a highway for secure data-exchange between medical practitioners and health-insurance companies. At Deutsche Telekom, we’re pulling out all the stops to get doctors connected in the first half of this year. Pharmacies and physiotherapists, amongst others, are set to follow.
This will lay the foundation for an interconnected healthcare system. Interconnectivity of digital solutions such as electronic patient files, electronic prescriptions, telemedicine, and many others will soon be commonplace, with any stand-alone silos of digital innovation becoming more and more uncommon and disappearing in the near future. Doctors' diagnoses and treatment data will become more readily available in digital form, allowing electronic transfer of this data to become routine. Patients will benefit from these changes –both in terms of the treatment they receive, and also in all other relevant healthcare processes.
All data to be digitally accessible
For example, when a patient's primary-care physician sends the patient to a specialist, the specialist will immediately have all the patient's data ready at his or her fingertips, in digital form. A patient will no longer have to present any paper documents to their pharmacy in order to receive prescribed medication. Their doctor will pass the prescription on to the pharmacy as soon as he writes it, so it can be ready and waiting ahead of time. The system can immediately flag any potential risk arising from the adverse interaction between newly prescribed medication and existing prescriptions. Or when a person's blood group must be known, it can be obtained instantly. Many people in Germany don't know their blood group. In an emergency, when every second counts, this can be fatal. In a digital world, medical data should be in digital form, and medical practitioners should be able to access it quickly and easily whenever they need to. This can save lives.
A major challenge for everyone involved
The TI, with all these exciting aspects, is only just taking off in Germany. For it to continue progressing as it should, we will have to work hard to raise awareness. At Deutsche Telekom we are connecting doctors' practices to the new data highway, but many doctors are still hesitant, wondering why they should all of a sudden need this service. Clearly explaining the benefits of the new system, and emphasizing that its risks can be controlled, is proving to be a major challenge for everyone involved.
There won’t be a “big bang”
The good news is that progress is being made, and that it is rapid indeed, compared to what we’ve seen over the last 15 years. That said, we need to realize that there won’t be a "big bang," or overnight digitalization of Germany's complete healthcare system. The diversity of the structures involved – both IT structures and the organizational structures of participating institutions– is simply too great for that. Insurers, hospitals, doctors' practices and pharmacies all use different data platforms. There are also legal aspects to consider. For example, lawmakers have only recently, after much delay, approved use of cloud-based computing (use of remote-hosted data and services) in the healthcare sector. Germany's lawmakers are very cautious when it comes to data-privacy. As it happens, we at Deutsche Telekom give the subject our absolute top priority. Our corporate philosophy strongly emphasizes data-security and the protection of each person's individual privacy rights. As such, we focus on both secure data-transmission and convenient data-access – on smartphones, for example.
Making life easier
At the same time, we must realize there will never be a "one-size-fits-all" technical solution. Any such solution, if it existed, would simply be too large, complex and unwieldy. And the risks would be too high; any system failure would have huge repercussions. With this in mind, we need to divide up the digitalization of healthcare into smaller, more manageable pieces. The introduction of electronic prescriptions, for example, would be a first major step forward. Germany is one of the few industrialized countries that does not yet have electronic prescriptions. The U.S. did away with paper prescriptions ten years ago.
We need to make use of the full potential of digitalization. Our secure data highway will soon be ready for use. Now we need to create services that will make life easier for its many users – patients, doctors, caregivers and insurance companies.