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Coronavirus has changed perception of healthtech, say ministers

German health minister Jens Spahn and UK health secretary Matt Hancock say Covid-19 has accelerated healthcare technology adoption across Europe and changed attitudes towards tech in the healthcare system

The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the role technology can play in improving healthcare services across Europe, according to health ministers.

Speaking at the GovTech Summit today (29 September), Germany’s federal minister of health, Jens Spahn, and UK health secretary Matt Hancock both highlighted how the pandemic has changed attitudes to technology in healthcare and accelerated digital adoption.

Hancock said that both the public and clinicians are now “demanding technology” rather than “having, or being deemed to have, scepticism about it”.

“In the UK, 99% of GP practices now offer video consultations, and that is up from under 10% before the pandemic,” he said. “It’s a radical shift.”

In Germany, there has also been a huge change in the adoption of technology, according to Spahn.

“What I really advocate for here in Germany is that by this pandemic situation, we can see how much digitisation can make a positive difference and helps us to better help the people, and to better get through this pandemic situation,” he said.

“That is actually what I hope we all learn for the future, that digital is not just something very abstract in health, it is very concrete and can make a difference.”

Spahn said that in Germany before the pandemic, faxes were still the most common way of communicating between healthcare organisations.

“Faxes are still the most used way of communication in our health system, at least when it comes to communicating between the different players,” he said. “Within a hospital, that might be very much digitised, but as soon as you want to communicate with another hospital or another player in the healthcare system, it’s very much like the 1990s and not like 2020.

“So, in this crisis, we are very much focusing on several different areas where we want to speed up the digital experience.”

One of the main issues that cropped up during the pandemic, said Spahn, was that in Germany, which has 16 federal states and 2,000 hospitals, there was no way to get a single overview of how many intensive-care beds were available or empty, something which became crucial.

To deal with that, Germany quickly developed its DIVI – Intensivregister, an intensive care unit (ICU) bed register, which nationally records in real time how many low-dependency and high-dependency ICU beds are available at each hospital, he said. 

“No one really had an overview of how many ICU beds we had,” said Spahn. The German government “forced hospitals by law to deliver the data that is needed”, he added, and now there is a single view of how many beds are occupied, whether there are Covid-19 patients in them, and how many beds are empty.

“What has been discussed for years, if not longer, was built in a matter of weeks,” he said.

In the UK, the NHS contact-tracing app for England and Wales was launched last week following extensive trials and much criticism over a number of mishaps and technical issues.

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Designed to be an important new tool to work alongside the UK’s currently struggling traditional contact-tracing apparatus, it will form a central part of the NHS Test and Trace service in England and the NHS Wales Test, Trace, Protect programme – identifying the contacts of people who have tested positive for Covid-19 and helping to prevent further spread of the virus.

Hancock said that as of 12 noon on 28 September, the app had been downloaded 12.4 million times.

“It’s the fastest downloaded app in British history, so we’re pretty proud of that and we’ve already exceeded 20% of the population who could download it,” he said.

Germany’s app has also been successful with 18.7 million downloads so far, but it hasn’t been without its challenges.

Germany’s strict data protection laws made it extra tricky, said Spahn, but the app that has been developed is not collecting data that is stored on a central server, but collects and stores data on the device itself.

“There is much German technology development in it regarding Bluetooth,” he said. “When it comes to the Bluetooth technology in it, which gives you the ability to really measure for how long, and at what distance you had contact with someone – that was developed in Germany and I’m very sure you will see this kind of technology in many different new apps.”

The German coronavirus-tracing app is also connected to laboratories, and so far more than one million results from the labs have been delivered directly to citizens, as well as public health authorities, said Spahn.

“Until a few weeks ago, the labs in Germany actually informed the public health authorities by fax,” he added. 

Germany is due to introduce a new digital patient record in January 2021, and Spahn said he was originally “unsure of how the acceptance would be”, but now, after the pandemic has highlighted the need for technology, he is “very sure that after this experience and this crisis, there will be a much higher acceptance, not just among citizens, but among doctors”.

Hancock said that in the UK, “people who were sceptics have tried it and found that technology helps them improve the way they can deliver care and helps patients to access care more easily”.

He added: “That’s why Covid has changed the culture from tech scepticism to tech enthusiasm within the NHS, and within almost all of our health systems across the world.”

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