Digital health: How is Covid-19 changing the German healthcare sector?

June 2020 – Remote patient consultations, fitness coaching via video stream, doctor’s notes issued over the phone, and the “corona app”: Almost overnight, the pandemic has shone a light on the digital potential within the German healthcare industry – but also on the areas where there is still a need for substantial development. The digital healthcare sector of tomorrow is now the focus of a “Healthcare Hackathon” in Kiel, which is being supported by Hamburg Commercial Bank.

Progress in this country can sometimes happen at a snail’s pace. Since as far back as the early 2000s, there has been lively discussion of the many advantages and, even more frequently, the feared disadvantages of digital medicine. Then, in 2015, the “E-health Act” paved the way for electronic patient files (ePAs). It will be six years later, however, that these finally become a reality from 2021 onwards, when all those with statutory health insurance will be able to apply for an ePA from their health insurance companies. “I don’t want digitization of the health system to be something we have to endure, it should be something that we shape together,” says the Federal Minister of Health Jens Spahn.

Yet a lot has changed since the outbreak of the corona pandemic. What remained impossible for a long time within healthcare is now advancing in fast-forward: huge injections of state capital, the sidelining of data protection considerations, for example concerning the introduction of the “corona app”, closer cooperation among research companies, or the much called-for return of system-relevant drug production from China or India to Europe. Digitization – the enduring weak point of the German healthcare system due to the lack of available specialists – now has more opportunities than ever.

patient consulation from a distance, fintess coaching per videostream

Coronavirus as a driving force in the healthcare sector

“Many of the coronavirus-related changes will remain in place, not least to enable us to react more effectively to any future pandemics,” says Thomas Miller. He is Executive Director Research at Hamburg Commercial Bank and a long-term observer of the German healthcare sector. For investors too, he says, this is a favorable window of opportunity: “Funding is actually more justifiable and reasonable right now.” Torsten Schwarz, Senior Relationship Manager Healthcare at Hamburg Commercial Bank, is convinced: “Digitization is progressing ever more quickly, particularly in the networking of data and telemedical applications.”

Yet what are the digital opportunities that can be exploited here and now for the German healthcare system? Which creative solutions have got what it takes to get off the ground? To find out, a group of smart thinkers from healthcare start-ups and universities are gathering for the fourth time at the “Healthcare Hackathon” on July 5 at the University Hospital Schleswig-Holstein (UKSH) – virtually this time, due to coronavirus. The patron of the event is once again the Minister of Social Affairs, Health, Youth, Family and Senior Citizens in Schleswig-Holstein, Dr. Heiner Garg, while Hamburg Commercial Bank is supporting the creative talent contest. Using the webtool Talque or via a live stream on YouTube, anyone who is interested can follow the work of these benevolent hackers. As part of a three-part series beginning with this article, we will likewise inform you of the impressions and results to come out of the Hackathon.

Health management: An industry in figures

  • 372 billion euros is the total value creation achieved by the German healthcare sector in 2019. This corresponds to around twelve percent of gross value added in Germany. That equates to more than one million euros gross value added every single day.
  • 4.1 percent is the average annual increase in gross value added by the healthcare sector over the past ten years – the economy overall saw an average annual increase of only 3.3 percent.
  • One in every six people in employment, or a total of 7.5 million people, works in pharmaceutical research, in a hospital, or as a medical reception, physiotherapist or dentist. Over the past ten years, the healthcare sector has created around 1.2 million new jobs.
  • 131 billion euros is the total value of exports attributable to the healthcare sector in 2019 – which equates to 8.3 percent of all German exports.

Boom in the healthcare sector

Development of gross value added 2010 to 2019 (Source: German Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy)

Development of gross value added 2010 to 2019 (Source: German Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy)

It was not by chance that the UKSH was chosen as the venue. The University Hospital is leading the way in digitization, and has been undergoing a cultural shift towards digitization at its campuses in Kiel and Lübeck for some years now – to the benefit of its approximately 450,000 patients each year and more than 14,000 employees, but also its own profitability. It’s partly thanks to this digital strategy that the hospital – the biggest employer in Schleswig-Holstein according to its own figures with a balance sheet that most recently totaled 1.7 billion euros – has been able to return to profitability.

And all the evidence would indicate that this has happened not in spite of, but rather thanks to the bold program of innovation and investment totaling more than half a billion euros over the last few years. A substantial portion of the capital procurement was done through Hamburg Commercial Bank, whose experts have profound knowledge of the German healthcare sector built up over many years.

two women looking at a laptop and point to a source code

“Personalized medicine, notably slimmed-down processes, and participative decision-making between doctor and patient on an equal footing”: These, alongside entirely new buildings, are the hallmarks of the modern medicine practiced in Kiel and Lübeck, according to Dr. Jens Scholz. The former anesthetist is Chairman of the Board at the UKSH and the host of the Hackathon. “Digitization is the driver of innovation behind all this. We have the opportunity and the power to transform previously analog processes into digital efficiency,” says Scholz. To this end, for example, the hospital IT complete with data center was centralized – and the regular Hackathons ensure that good ideas don’t go to waste.

In its two new buildings in Kiel and Lübeck, the UKSH is purposefully exploiting the possibilities of digitization in order to ease the burden of routine tasks on doctors and care staff and boost the success of treatments at the same time. The main task, Scholz explains, was and remains, “organizing the transformation and integration of all the systems into one database.” Scholz: “We are working on the solution with the clear goal of putting the information precisely where I as a doctor or nurse will need it.”

Healthcare providers in need of major funding

The UKSH is a pioneer in matters of digitization within Germany. The progress made in Kiel and Lübeck should serve as a lesson not only to other university hospitals, but also smaller healthcare providers. After all, there is simply no alternative to digitization. Covid-19 has put the developments of the past few years into fast-forward – and will further speed up progress towards even more substantially digitized healthcare services. “Yet what that also means is a growing need for funding. Digitization will not succeed with state funding alone,” says banking expert Miller. Advice from funding partners with profound industry knowledge, like Hamburg Commercial Bank, will be more in demand than ever over the next few years.

Michael Rothehüser

Head of Corporates Germany

Phone: +49 40 3333-10151