Healthcare: Breaking the Mold with Design Thinking Principles

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Few industries have a more direct impact on people’s lives than healthcare. Unfortunately, there are plenty of indications that consumers are becoming increasingly frustrated with providers. A 2016 research study found that a shocking 81% of survey respondents were unsatisfied with their healthcare experience. Even more troubling, though, was the significant gap (over 20%) between the experience providers felt they were delivering and the one consumers felt they were receiving.

Clearly, something has gone very wrong somewhere.

While new developments in technology have created opportunities for healthcare providers and pharmaceutical companies to interact with consumers like never before, they must find a way to utilize those innovations in ways that create positive and engaging user experiences if they want to get the most out of them. By taking a more human-centered approach to identifying and surmounting the barriers that get in the way of a positive healthcare experience, design thinking has the power to transform the way the industry engages with customers.

Understanding What People REALLY Want

Before they can get working on solutions, however, healthcare providers must first define the problem. While survey data can identify trends and consistent complaints, the raw numbers often don’t reveal the entire story. Until you understand how people feel about these concerns and actually describe their personal experience with them, it can be difficult to get to the true nature of the problem. Only by engaging with people and finding ways to empathize with their situation can you begin to understand their needs, expectations, and frustrations.

People know how they feel about the problems they face, but they don’t always understand how to translate those feelings into actionable comments

For example, if people consistently highlight long wait times as a reason for their poor experience, it’s important to understand why they find the delays so frustrating. There’s more than one possible solution to long waits. If patients feel ignored and not valued, that will require a different solution than if they simply want to have the information they need as quickly as possible. In the former situation, solutions may involve more front-facing medical staff, while the latter might be better solved by automated systems that deliver information that can be accessed at the user’s convenience.

People know how they feel about the problems they face, but they don’t always understand how to translate those feelings into actionable comments. Design thinking encourages researchers to find better ways of getting to the core of those feelings in order to provide more effective solutions.

Coming at Problems Sideways

Once you’ve identified what the customer needs, it’s time to start formulating ideas to address them. The healthcare and pharmaceutical industries present a lot of challenges in this regard because they are weighed down by legacy technologies, infrastructure, and methodologies. In this unique space, the user experience is multifaceted because whatever solutions design thinking processes generate need to work for multiple stakeholders (healthcare professionals, hospital administrations, health insurers, drug manufacturers, and so forth).

But it’s precisely here that design thinking can find ways to break through the longstanding gridlock in the industry because it has the ability to deliver measurable benefits on the margins. There may not be a single, grandiose solution to healthcare dissatisfaction, but small improvements and innovations that directly impact customers can begin to chip away at the larger problem. Take, for instance, the implementation of AI chatbots that can directly answer customer questions and handle menial tasks such as scheduling appointments. This solution addresses a key pain point for customers who want to have their questions answered immediately. Who (or what, in this case) responded to them proved to be less important than the speed of the response.

In this particular example, customers might not have reacted positively to the idea of interacting with an AI driven chat program when asked about it. They might even have insisted that an actual person answer their questions. But good observational research would reveal that those same people didn’t really care as much about the distinction as they thought. What they really wanted was to have someone resolve their issues immediately.

This may seem like a small solution for a big problem, and ultimately it is. Chatbots won’t completely revolutionize the healthcare industry on their own. What they can do, however, is incrementally improve the user experience for customers by delivering major benefits to people in specific situations. As part of a wider array of innovative solutions that address different challenges and problems within the industry, they can play a critical role in delivering measurable improvements.

Iterative design and prototyping is an important step in this ongoing design process. The faster solutions can be put into an intended user’s hands, the faster it can be adapted to their specific needs. Each iteration brings the idea closer to something that feels easy and natural to use, even if the final version is quite far from the original conception. In the healthcare industry, potential products also need to go through rigorous testing to ensure they meet regulatory requirements and will not be rejected out of hand by other stakeholders.

Whether designing medical products or rethinking healthcare services, design thinking can bring new approaches to seemingly intractable problems in the healthcare industry. These problems often seem so large and complex that we often lose sight of the fact that patients deal with the system on an individual level, rarely encountering every issue all at once. By delivering targeted, manageable solutions that improve the way patients feel about engaging with the healthcare industry, it’s possible to gradually improve their overall user experience as consumers one small step at a time.

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