The security specialist Hypercom is the first company to receive an approval for its smartcard reader by the German health IT organisation gematik. The announcement is very timely: the smartcard rollout is planned to start in October.

The official schedule for the German rollout says that smartcard readers will be given to doctors in North-Rhine-Westphalia by the end of the year. Health insurance companies are due to start sending the new electronic health cards to their customers in the same region in January 2009. If everything goes well, other regions will follow suit.

The timetable looks more realistic now that the Hypercom smartcard reader medCompact V2.0 has been approved. E-Health-Europe understands there has been pressure from the German Ministry of Health on gematik and on the responsible security agency BSI (federal agency for security in information technology) to accelerate the approval process.

Producing a smartcard reader for the German smartcard project is a difficult task for several reasons. “First of all, the reader has to be compatible both with the new electronic health cards and with the old memory cards,” said Markus Scheffler, marketing communications manager at Hypercom.

Customers of the German public health insurance system have been using the old memory cards for identification for a decade now.

Second, the reader has to be able to be updated to the new SICCT (Secure Interoperable Chipcard Terminal) standard without any change in hardware.

“This was really critical for the approval,” said Scheffler. Smartcard readers that fulfil the new SICCT standard will be needed as soon as a doctor or pharmacist goes online.

Ten companies have requested gematik approval for smartcard readers. If there is a bottleneck, it seems to be the security check at BSI. Gematik says that is has given functional approval to four other products already. But Hypercom is the only company to which BSI has awarded the necessary security label so far.

It is interesting that the company now seems to be leading the way, because it has not been deeply involved in the healthcare market previously.

Instead, the company – formerly called Thales e-Transactions – has been concentrating on the far larger and far more international market for readers of e-payment smartcards, of the kind that are increasingly used in supermarkets.

Hypercom says that it is market leader for these e-payment terminals in Germany, and among the top three vendors worldwide.