Only months before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic, Germany motioned to reconstruct its national healthcare system, starting with the Digital Healthcare Act. Passed in September 2019, tasks that once required an in-person visit to a physician’s office can now occur online. Options available to patients and doctors through telehealth include:
- Manage prescriptions through smartphone apps.
- Report and monitor conditions remotely, such as blood sugar.
- Arrange consultations and appointments online and attend these over video calls.
- Collect data electronically, increasing accessibility for healthcare professionals and researchers.
- Provide medics specialized in emergency telemedicine to reduce mortality rates in areas that lack access to medical resources.
Maintaining a Digital Healthcare System
Through government support, healthcare in Germany has successfully transitioned to a digital format. The government dedicates €200 million per year for the development of medical technology. Additionally, healthcare providers have received encouragement to comply with the national system, the Telematics Infrastructure. Physicians who do not offer virtual options receive a charge of a 2.5% fee. The charge ensures that providers are staying up-to-date with emerging technology and meeting the national standards for healthcare. Despite the complications which accompany telemedicine, to guarantee care is available for everyone, the Digital Healthcare act covers all fees incurred virtually under insurance.
How Telehealth Benefits Impoverished Populations
The benefits of digital healthcare in Germany differ depending on the unique needs of each individual. Groups who benefit the most from digital healthcare include but are not limited to:
- Individuals older than the age of 60.
- Low-income individuals.
- Families affected by catastrophic spending.
- Individuals lacking health insurance.
Catastrophic spending occurs when families must pay out of pocket for emergency medical services, often leaving them in debt. Low-income individuals as well as those without insurance are most likely to experience negative effects from catastrophic spending. Although it only affects a small percentage of the population, catastrophic spending to cover medical expenditures is very much a marginalized issue, as two out of three households who catastrophic spending effects are already in poverty.
Telehealth benefits impoverished families because virtual healthcare comes with a smaller price tag than many in-person services. Insurance plans place a cap on the number of inpatient services a patient may receive before an increase in pricing. However, there is currently no cap on outpatient visits, such as telehealth calls, which still provide a medical service but do not require a hospital visit.
Healthcare in Germany, specifically telehealth, is also more affordable for lower-income patients due to the Hospital Care Structure Reform Act of 2016. The legislation aims to cut back on unnecessary charges for medical services for patients. For example, a low-income family would be more likely to afford a telehealth appointment than a different service that requires lab testing or an in-person visit to a physician’s office.
Influences on COVID-19
Telehealth serves as a model for countries seeking solutions for healthcare in a time that requires less direct contact. The influence of German telehealth allows countries that did not previously utilize a virtual system to continue to safely provide care throughout the pandemic. Ways in which digital healthcare protects both doctors and patients include:
- Virtual appointments decrease the amount of direct contact between healthcare professionals and patients, simultaneously decreasing the chances of transmission.
- Treating patients with less severe concerns via telehealth enhances flexibility so medical professionals may attend to patients who require immediate care.
- The capability of healthcare specialists to partner remotely offers patients extended hours to receive virtual care.
- Online resources, such as self-evaluation tools, advise individuals on how to remain cautious throughout the pandemic.
Evolution of Healthcare
German contributions to telehealth reflect the way in which the United States, as well as many other countries, are handling the COVID-19 pandemic. The German Digital Healthcare Act paves the way for the future of medical treatment and offers new options for healthcare that are not only efficient but also introduce a new aspect of convenience for patients. Although some individuals may be reluctant to adopt a digital healthcare system due to the unique challenges it poses, Germany has proven that transitioning to virtual medicine is not only possible but beneficial as well as it continues to deliver flexible options for healthcare during the pandemic.
– Calla Howard