Doctors on Call

Telemedicine in Germany has made the leap from maybe-someday to must-have, and the sector continues to evolve at “corona crisis speed.”

October, 2020

The everyday workings of German healthcare are evolving faster than previously imaginable due to the corona pandemic. In a survey of 2,024 German physicians before the crisis, the German Health Ministry’s Health Innovation Hub found that the majority (76 percent) were not using any form of online consultation with patients. Among psychiatric doctors and psychotherapists, the figure was 88 percent. After the outbreak, more than 88 percent of doctors in general and more than 90 percent of psychiatric professionals said they were now offering online consultations for at least a small proportion of their patients.

Stanislas Niox-Chateau is the cofounder and CEO of Doctolib, a mobile booking platform for doctor appointments that has expanded to Germany.

© picture alliance/REUTERS

Those numbers square with figures from local and international companies offering telemedical services since the onset of coronavirus. Munich’s TeleClinic has seen growth of over 250 percent, while another firm from the city, jameda, boasts of having increased business by over 1,000 percent. Swedish medical start-up KRY’s consultations shot up by 350 percent between February and March 2020, and France’s Doctolib has more than doubled the number of German doctors on their service.

“The pandemic has seen both doctors and patients experience how helpful digital applications like video consultations can be,” says Doctolib’s managing director Ilias Tsimpoulis.

Not just a corona trend

Notwithstanding the pandemic, it was perhaps inevitable that Germany, ranked second to last in a 2018 Bertelsmann Foundation telemedicine study, would make up ground. In a 2019 survey, one third of those asked said they were willing to use telemedicine, and around half of younger Germans under the age of 45 viewed the idea favorably.

Thus, even before Covid there was plenty of business potential. In its 2019 health industry report, financial services company MLP found that 89 percent of doctors in Germany expected the number of telemedicine services on offer to rise, while 78 percent predicted that patients would increasingly use them.

89.7%

of doctors say Covid-19 impacted the use of video consultations in their practices

Germany’s initial sluggishness in this area was due partly to what investors perceived as heavy-handed regulation. That had already begun to shift before the pandemic. In December 2019, the German government passed the Digital Care Act, relaxing the rules concerning telemedicine, allowing doctors to prescribe health apps and easing market entry for new companies. Covid-19 loosened things further still, resulting in what Henrik Matthies, managing director of the Health Innovation Hub, calls a “giant leap toward a digital-backed healthcare system.”

German Health Minister Jens Spahn has made no bones about his lofty ambitions for digital healthcare, and the ministry has mandated that electronic health records and e-prescriptions be available by 2021.

More changes in the offing

There is so much more to the sector, though, than just video consultations. Stefan Biesdorf, digital health expert at consultants McKinsey, told digital health provider ottonova that he doesn’t like the term “telemedicine.” He prefers to talk about e-health or digital health because, he argues, that wording best “incorporates all the technologies that are doctor-oriented.”

76%

of patients would use e-prescriptions

In a white paper published in July 2020, the German Medical Association described how the pandemic had changed German healthcare for the better. “This new culture of trying things out and collecting the results represents a step forward in German healthcare provision because it’s in fact oriented around actual treatment needs,” the Association wrote. It called for more telemonitoring of chronically ill and infectious patients, improved data banks and testing possibilities, and better communication between doctors, care homes and government officials.

Some international companies are getting in on the act by offering remote and patient-self-monitoring medical services. For example, Canada’s Dialogue recently acquired German workplace health and safety consultancy Argumend, while Swiss skin disease specialist OnlineDoctor is also rapidly growing in popularity in Germany.

An app a day keeps the doc away

Other increasingly commonplace solutions include apps that allow patients to self-monitor chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes, sleep apnea or intestinal health. There are digital assistants to make appointments, injury rehabilitation apps, prenatal classes, online self-help and psychological therapy, as well as digital triage to ensure that all pre-appointment tasks, such as blood tests, have been carried out.

70%

of patients used video consultations for the first time in the pandemic

“The digital health sector is only just getting started now [in Germany],” KRY Germany’s general manager Daniel Schneider told local broadcasters. “There are really only a few digital sectors that you have the chance to get involved in so early on.”

Competition in well-established fields like e-commerce and fintech is already fierce, he noted, but not so much in digital health. “In terms of e-health, we’re still asking beginners’ questions,” Schneider said. “‘What do patients think? What do they want?’ I believe we are going to learn a lot in the next few months and years. The coronavirus actually only gave us a strong push. There is a lot more to come.”

Who uses video consultations the most in Germany?

Source: Stiftung Gesundheit (non-profit health foundation) May 2020 survey