A new law is expanding the possibilities for e-health and telemedicine in Germany. Healthcare apps, video chats with doctors and electronic databases are just some of the innovations patients can expect in the near future. But not everyone is on board – some doctors and patients have expressed concerns about data security and patient privacy.

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Germany is a leading country when it comes to innovations in medical technology and medical treatment. But when it comes to digitalization in healthcare, it’s trying to catch up. Whereas other countries have centralized healthcare databases, electronic insurance cards and wide-ranging opportunities for telemedicine/remote treatment, Germany has only just started to introduce these measures – and not everybody is happy about it. A society very concerned about the privacy of its citizens, German doctors have expressed skepticism about data protection in healthcare – especially in light of recent cyber attacks.

From fitness trackers to diagnostic devices: the rise of healthcare apps

Nearly half of all Germans are already using digital healthcare offerings, whether they realize it or not. According to a recent survey, nearly one-third have received medical documents in electronic form, such as a CD, and 18% have made a doctor’s appointment online. Additionally, 45% use at least one fitness app.

#A plethora of wide-ranging health and fitness apps are available already, and more are being developed all the time. There are apps to track everyday health-related factors such as sleep, exercise and nutrition, as well as to manage diseases such as diabetes, to diagnose skin cancer and to identify pills by outward appearance. Additional sensors can even turn your smartphone into a diagnostic tool: For $200, you can buy a sensor for your phone that can perform a complete, hospital-grade ECG to diagnose certain heart conditions.

Of course, only a trained medical specialist can interpret the results of the ECG and determine if the patient is suffering from a mild heart murmur or a life-threatening heart attack. But as algorithms and artificial intelligence improve, such devices may even be able to diagnose medical conditions in the future.

Bots can diagnose some illnesses better than humans

Indeed, developers are already working on bots and algorithms that can perform medical diagnoses. A Google bot can already diagnose Zika, and some algorithms have been shown to be more accurate than humans when it comes to diagnosing certain conditions. Bots may be able to save time for both doctors and patients, as doctors can spend less time answering patients’ questions and more time providing treatment, and patients will not need to cope with long waiting times in order to get medical advice.

But bots and apps are no replacement for trained medical professionals – at least not yet. Of all the healthcare apps available today, only a tiny percentage have any sort of certification or official approval. While some, such as nutrition tips and fitness trackers, are fairly harmless, others – such as an app which claims it can diagnose skin cancer by analyzing a photo alone – may not be. These digital offerings need to be regulated and approved before they can be treated as serious medical diagnostic tools. Similarly, the wealth of healthcare information available online is largely unregulated. While digital information can be a useful tool for patients to inform themselves before a doctor’s appointment, much of the information on the internet is false, incomplete or misleading. If the information does not come from a reliable source, it can easily do more harm than good – not a risk most people want to take when their health is at stake.

Fitness apps and wearable devices have a down side, too. Not many people think about it when they sign up, but many apps save individuals’ health data, and this information can be difficult to delete. Few people go to great lengths to inform themselves about the security of their data when they download an app. And even if the app outlines in its terms and conditions that its user data is deleted, anonymized or otherwise protected, the user is never completely safe from cyber attacks and hacking.

Telemedicine: Germany loosens laws for remote treatment

Until recently, remote treatment in Germany was strictly verboten. Getting a medical diagnosis required an in-person doctor’s visit, where the patient could often reckon with long waiting times and, in some cases, long trips to get to the clinic. Telemedicine is opening up new treatment opportunities. Now, patients are allowed to discuss their symptoms with a doctor and receive a treatment recommendation via video conference, if the doctor knows the patient and has met them in-person before. This could save time and offer more treatment possibilities for patients who live in rural areas, as well as international patients interested in a medical consultation in Germany. In the future, patients may be able to perform diagnostics themselves with their smartphones, send the information instantly to a doctor (or diagnostic algorithm), and receive a recommendation much faster than is possible today.

Research databases and online patient files

The new German healthcare law requires doctors to enter patient information into large centralized databases which researchers will have access to. This could lead to great advancements in medical treatments as researchers can analyze greater amounts of real-life data than ever before. Additionally, the law orders the creation of digital patient files, where a patient’s entire medical history will be saved in one place. This makes it easier to share information, for instance, when a patient switches clinics, changes from a general practitioner to a specialist, or wants a second opinion.

Data protection: security risk or quality mark?

Still, some people are not convinced there will be adequate data protection to protect patients’ privacy. This will have to be taken into account when implementing new digital offerings in the healthcare sector. Because Germans are so concerned about privacy, some experts predict that data protection will become a cornerstone of German e-health. If Germany has superior data security in its healthcare system, this could even become a unique selling point for people seeking treatment from outside of Germany. Before, the most well-known quality seal was “made in Germany.” In the future, that may very well be “protected by Germany.”