Germany's healthcare system is using this open source standard for encrypted instant messaging

The entire German healthcare system will end its reliance on commercial applications and instead build its own network of communication.

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Called Matrix, the platform will provide German developers with the infrastructure, tools and protocols to build custom-made applications for instant messaging.  

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A fast-growing open communication platform has been picked by the German healthcare system to support instant messaging between health professionals and organizations across the country.

Called Matrix, the platform will provide German developers with the infrastructure, tools and protocols to build custom-made applications that will let up to 150,000 healthcare organizations securely share messages, data, images and files.  

The entire healthcare system in Germany, from hospitals through clinics and insurance companies, will switch to this homegrown communication and collaboration network, which was hailed as a milestone in the country's digital transformation. 

Healthcare organizations and professionals have increasingly been turning to digital tools to exchange information. In Germany, for example, between 2018 and 2020, the number of medical practices using messenger services has doubled. 

According to the country's national agency for the digitalization of the healthcare system gematik, however, this switch to digital tools has been done in silo, resulting in a lack of interoperability between different professionals and organizations, as well as a failure to comply with appropriate security and privacy standards for what is likely to be highly sensitive patient information. 

This is why gematik turned to Matrix, an open-source project that is designed to let organizations take ownership of their communication tools. Instead of relying on applications that exist already, Matrix users can access open-source HTTP APIs and SDKs for iOS, Android and Web, to develop their own chat rooms, video conferencing and instant messaging tools. 

It isn't the first time that the German government has elected Matrix to run country-wide public services. Last year, the start-up was called upon to provide collaboration tools for 500,000 users in the education system in the states of Schlesweig-Holstein and Hamburg

This time around, gematik will be using Matrix to build TI-Messenger, a new standard for instant messaging in the German healthcare system. The healthcare industry will be able to use TI-Messenger to create a wide range of apps for health organizations and professionals to use – and all of them will be interoperable.  

Gematik anticipates that between 15 and 20 apps will be built off the back of TI-Messenger for users to pick from for their daily communications needs, which will be available to every healthcare provider and professional once they have been securely authenticated. 

One of the major benefits of using the system is better oversight and management of sensitive data. All servers in the network will effectively be hosted in Germany, either in the application vendor's datacenters or within healthcare institutions' own infrastructure.

Matrix has also committed to embedding end-to-end encryption as the by-default method in all of the services built on top of the platform, in another push to better protect data. 

"Each organization and individual will therefore retain complete ownership and control of their communication data – while being able to share it securely within the healthcare system with end-to-end encryption by default," said Matrix co-founder Matthew Hodgson in a blog post announcing the new deal

Underpinning the company's mission statement is the objective of moving away from today's most popular digital collaboration tools, which according to Matrix's founders, require users to make huge concessions when it comes to privacy and security. 

Many organizations currently rely on centralized platforms, often hosted in the US, for their most critical communications – yet have very little control over how their data is treated. 

Matrix presents itself as an alternative to what the company's founders describe as a form of vendor lock-in, by giving users the means to create their own communication networks – in a way, just like anybody can currently create their own website on the internet. 

The idea is resonating with many customers, and the number of Matrix users is increasing at pace. During the COVID-19 crisis, the company saw a ten-fold increase in demand, and it has now hit 30 million users. Matrix's open-source platform was used by the French government to build Tchap, an app now used by employees to communicate instead of Telegram and WhatsApp. 

Gematik, for its part, has confirmed that work is already underway to build the country's new network of communication for healthcare providers. The first Matrix-compliant apps are expected to be licensed by the second quarter of 2022.