Digitalization: The Fear Has Subsided

Moritz Gathmann|2018-07-13

Digitalizing medicine is the only way forward. But hospitals and doctors are realizing that change cannot take place without the support of the people involved.

The great fear of digitalization, which still prevailed in the German medical sector a few years ago, is a thing of the past. Of that Michael Forsting, Medical Director of Central IT at Essen University Hospital, is sure. “There was already opposition in the year 2000, when we digitalized radiology,” he recalls. But today something else concerns employees: artificial intelligence (AI). “People ask themselves: What do we do with the data?” The algorithms for AI-based apps are now available, but they must first be ‘trained’ – and it is the hospitals as data suppliers that are best placed to do this. But does the data not belong to the patient?

That digital development at times outstrips reality is also the experience of Andreas Schlüter, Chief Executive Officer of the Knappschaft clinics. The group’s clinics are now largely digitalized: The staff carry an iPad when they visit patients and the data goes straight into the electronic patient records without being entered on paper first. But Knappschaft alone now has 60 IT employees developing new technologies. Schlüter says this raises two questions: “Can employees still cope? And how are the new solutions to be financed?” So it is important that employees are involved in digital change processes. This is confirmed by Matthias Bracht, Medical Director at the Klinikum Region Hannover GmbH: “The willingness to change is there when it comes to digital innovations that support but do not replace.”

An example of a useful innovation, but one that has had a rather bumpy ride, is the introduction of robots to fill the medicine dispensers in hospitals. Although the advantage of such robots is obvious, in almost all hospitals in Germany pill boxes are still being filled by hand. And in many places introducing the robots leads to problems: “A classic example of the second step being taken before the first,” believes Peter Gocke, Chief Digital Officer at Berlin’s Charité. “Because for the robot to work, the entire patient care process has to be digitalized first.” In other words, if the prescriptions are all digital and the documentation is all digital, then the last step is not difficult.

It is also the case that employees put up resistance when they realize that the change might result in them no longer being needed. “You need to have people who want to drive things forward themselves,” Gocke believes. At the same time, new applicants to clinics now make a point of asking about digitalization. “If we were not digital, applicants would stay away,” Forsting believes.

But what are the implications of digitalization? André Heinz, Global Head of Human Resources at Siemens Healthineers AG, believes that doctors and other medical staff will have more time for patients due to quicker and more accurate diagnoses, simplified administration, and direct access to patient data.

Matthias Bracht disagrees: he believes that new technology systems can take the place of employees in patient care as well. “But the debate about what happens to the people who have been doing this work is what holds us back,” he says. “And yet this is an opportunity to provide needs-based care – especially in light of a skills shortage.” Society must hold a value discussion to determine the extent to which robots assume the tasks of nursing staff, believes Karsten Neumann, Senior Advisor at Competence Center Digital at Roland Berger GmbH. “If we still want people in addition to care robots, we must also be ready to spend more money,” he says.

Whether in telemedicine or AI – everyone agrees that the objective of all change must be to provide optimal care. But every clinic has its own priorities. For example, Matthias Bracht in the Hanover region wants to ensure group synergy at all locations. Digital structures must be used to bring know-how to the patient, he believes. Andreas Schlüter wants to see digital tool at the patients’ home, thereby improving patient care: “The device will be in the patient's home, but we will be able to access the data.” Peter Gocke in Berlin is counting on more patient data being collected and analyzed. “Whoever has the better database will provide better medical care,” he is convinced. André Heinz believes in networks and says that partnerships with customers are the right way to go. “Our business model has changed due to this as well: We are finding possibilities that go beyond selling a product and the accompanying service package. The keyword here is ‘risk/benefit-sharing’. That’s how we share our joint success with the customer.” Consultant Karsten Neumann also believes in networks and especially in digitally integrating the whole patient. “The provider that manages this will have the competitive edge,” he says.

Moritz Gathmann is a freelance journalist in Berlin. He reports for magazines and newspapers, including “Spiegel” and “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”.