The biggest IT organisation of German health insurance companies, ISKV, has begun to offer a smartcard-based access solution to the websites of insurance companies.

Patients can use the smartcards to access the insurance companies’ website to securely access services such as medical advice, together with accessing financial details of treatments received.

The solution is presented this week at the German health IT conference ‘IT trends 2007’ in Essen. The smartcard system – based on a technology known as Application CAT – is being provided by Tübingen-based company Careon, a vendor of personal health records (PHR).

"With the help of the Application CAT, health insurance companies can now offer patients the possibility to use their electronic health card to get secure access to a variety of insurance-related web services," Harald Sondhof, head of Careon told E-Health Europe.

In comparison to traditional log-in-procedures with user name and password, the smartcard-based solution is considered to have a higher level of security. Criminals would need both the smartcard and the password to get access to personal data.

The news comes at a time when Germany is debating about how to realise the nationwide roll-out of its electronic healthcare smartcards ‘elektronische Gesundheitskarte’ next year.

The ministry of health recently announced that it plans to start the roll-out in Q2 2008. It will be only an offline-system in the beginning.

“The smartcard access to the services of health insurance websites is the first tangible application of the new electronic health card for patients in Germany”, said Sondhof, “it can easily be upgraded to an access-tool for personal health records on the internet.”

All a patient would need for this scenario is a smartcard reader. It could, in principal, be offered by the health insurance company without additional costs for the patient.

Application-CAT can be used by any health insurance company. The first to implement Application-CAT is ISKV, which is responsible for development of shared IT systems for two out of three German health insurance companies.

The system offers the potential for the the majority of German health insurers to offer smartcard-based access to web services as soon as the electronic health card will be available next year.

This would potentially create the ability to offer smartcard-based access to PHR-solutions, offering a mechanism for patients to be offered easy and immediate access to their personal medical data. 

A key barrier to PHRs is that doctors or hospitals must upload medical documents actively in addition to their own electronic documentation. This is additional work for them, and thus hard to implement on a larger scale, at least voluntarily.

The second-biggest health insurance company in Germany, DAK, is currently working on a co-operation project with the private hospital chain Asklepios and with IBM which aims at realising an automatic upload of pre-defined medical data into PHRs. The project has yet to reach prototype stage.