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12 ways to improve the healthcare user experience

Brian Eastwood | April 9, 2013
Technology is a great way to engage patients in managing their health, but poor design--whether it's a bad interface or an app that doesn't meet patients' needs--often stands in the way. These 12 tips will help designers and developers improve the user experience for patients who want to improve their health.

For Samantha LeVan, a two-time cancer survivor who's now a senior user experience designer at the Mayo Clinic, this means understanding that patients will always be patients, and their stories will always follow them. "Learn about it and understand it so it won't be scary," she says.

When engaging with patients, always ask the questions, even if you already know the answers, LeVan says. You never know what you will find out. For example, in redesigning Mayo's website for medical transplants, LeVan's team learned that it's best to present information to patients and caregivers in stages, when they need it, and not all at once.

Focus on the Underserved

Dr. Ivor Horn, a pediatrician in Washington, D.C.'s largely black Anacostia neighborhood, suggests that Silicon Valley is dissociated from the population that truly needs technology-a notion that's especially troubling when the federal government, insurance companies and even the open market are starting to support these patients.

"Why aren't the innovations in healthcare focusing on solutions for minority populations?" Horn asks. The obesity rate in Anacostia is more than three times that of Georgetown, she adds, but residents of the latter neighborhood are far more likely to have heard of a FitBit.

Horn encourages the industry to find minority investors, designers and developers, not just for their experience but also their perspective. She also says minority physicians would make great chief medical officers for healthcare IT startups; many are small business owners who are used to finding customers—in this case, patients-without "venture capital backing."

Eliminate the Source of the Problem

One approach to change is idealized design. As the subtitle of the seminal text on this topic says, the idea is to dissolve tomorrow's crisis today.

Dante Murphy, global experience director for Digitas Health, explained idealized design's four phases as they pertain to banking:

Naturally, this isn't easy; referring to the Cynefin framework, Murphy notes that most of the problems worth solving are either complex or chaotic. But it's not impossible. "I know you believe me," Murphy says. "Change your organization."

Focus on What Users Need, Not What They Want

After the HITECH Act of 2009 introduced the meaningful use incentive program, with promises of stimulus checks to hospitals and healthcare providers who used electronic health record (EHR) technology, EHR vendors started scrambling for customers.

In doing so, says Jacob Reider, M.D., chief medical officer of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC), they gave doctors what they wanted, not what they needed. The result resembled a Vermont farm house, Reider says, with the half that Uncle Hal built looking nothing like Uncle Bill's half. Moreover, this excess customization made it difficult for new users to get started with the programs.


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