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This article was published on October 30, 2020

Why countries need to work together to bring digital health into the future

Why countries need to work together to bring digital health into the future

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the speed and scale of adoption of digital health technologies in a way that’s hard to imagine under normal circumstances. Innovations like telemedicine and chatbots designed to limit in-person contact and data models that optimize the allocation of ventilators, hospital beds, and staff are seeing increased use today around the world. Countries are learning from the approaches of their neighbors and applying new methods in a race towards efficiency. 

Digital health, however, has not historically been a disruptive force in the technology or health worlds. Some might go as far as to say that it’s been the most disappointing investment area of the last two decades, with little return to show for the over $30 billion dollars that’s been invested in it since 2011. That’s in large part because the “move fast break things” model of Silicon Valley startups doesn’t work in the health industry. Many B2C companies don’t grow at scale because customers don’t want to pay out of pocket for products that don’t necessarily address a need, and it’s very difficult to sell new eHealth products to healthcare systems that are both change and risk-averse. 

Digital health has expanded drastically due to the pandemic in large part because governments have prioritized new technologies. Looking forward, if the digital health ecosystem is going to survive and thrive, they’ll not only need to appeal to all stakeholders involved, including patients, doctors, regulators, policymakers, and insurers, but they’ll also need to look across borders and form innovation partnerships with other countries.  

Germany and Sweden are leading the way

Each country has its own unique healthcare system, but they face similar problems, like growing populations with chronic, complex, and difficult-to-treat illnesses that require more personalized and preventative models of care. Germany, for example, has positioned itself as a leader in digital health. Its Digital Care Act, established last November, gives doctors the ability to prescribe medical apps that are paid for by public health insurance, which currently covers 73 million Germans; think apps that offer a guideline-based, behavioral therapy for chronic tinnitus exposure like Kalmeda or mental health apps that offer cognitive behavioral therapy exercises like velibra.

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The new legislation, which also fast-tracked applications, DiGAs, into standard care, will likely be a topic of discussion among the participants of the upcoming German-Swedish Digital Health Event hosted by the Digital Hub Initiative and TNW, as well as an attractive proposal to foreign startups. 

This event arose out of the German-Swedish Innovation Partnership, signed by German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven in 2017 and 2019. Given the challenging regulatory framework of the healthcare sector, but also the high potential, startups and businesses in digital health can profit substantially from exchanges, networking, and cooperation between each other and relevant stakeholders.

This event is powered by the Digital Hub Initiative and supported by various German and Swedish ministries, Germany Trade and Invest (GTAI), as well as other stakeholders engaged in digital health. The goal is to encourage the exchange of ideas and experiences in order to help businesses and startups in digital health to strive and access national and international markets.

Startup success stories will drive excitement around this partnership. For example, German online medical consultation startup Doctolib, which is one of the three most-used telemedicine platforms in the world, will join the event and likely speak to the fact that their technology, coupled with the coronavirus pandemic, will upend the way society seeks medical care. Doctrin, a Swedish startup that provides a digital platform to healthcare providers with an automated medical history and communication tool to integrate patient-centric healthcare, will also speak at the conference and be able to answer any questions about expanding to other markets, as the company progresses its offerings to the Nordic region. 

There has never been a better time to invest in digital health. In Germany, the market volume of digital health is predicted to grow 57 billion euro by 2025. Globally, it’s expected to grow 979B Euros. Sweden and Germany chose different approaches to handle the pandemic, yet the two countries wish to use this event to demonstrate that business and collaboration is still ongoing. Thought leaders will discuss topics like why the future of healthcare is digital and how digital hubs can help shape digital health markets, and startups will be able to pitch their ideas to VCs, encouraging cross-country investments. 

“Besides the financial investment, we hope to see investors that are also willing to be mentors to startups that wish to expand to other countries,” said Josefina Nungesser, Director of Trend and Innovation Scouting at GTAI. Nungesser also pointed out that an expanded digital hub would make both countries more attractive to digital health startups seeking connections and resources. 

“We know that in some ways, we are competitors in terms of locations for startups,” said Nungesser. “But at the same time, if you believe in a European vision, and I think both Germany and Sweden do, then you don’t see yourselves only as competitors. We would like to be an example to the world demonstrating that more collaboration and partnerships in Europe will strengthen the European startup ecosystem, and I think we can only benefit from that.”

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