5 ways to design better healthcare systems

How can design help fix the health industry's problems?

According to a recent study, doctors today are spending 40% less time with patients than in the 1980s, and more of their time than ever is being spent battling with inefficient medical enterprise systems. The result is frequent exhaustion in an industry already suffering from far higher burnout rates than in comparable industries. Having designed interfaces for the health industry for over 8 years, it struck a chord. But how can this be fixed? For us, it’s a problem of design.

By designing systems around patients, including building interconnected systems which allow all patient data to live in one place (commonly called an Electronic Health Record, or EHR), the amount of time, frustration and confusion that could be avoided would be enormous. In addition to EHRs, neural networks such as Google’s DeepMind could trawl a patient’s data and catch issues human practitioners have missed, whilst AIs like Babylon Health can already triage patients more accurately than humans; with access to a patient’s entire health record, the accuracy of these digital tools could increase further still.

However, today’s available technology is not without fault. The problem with EHRs isn’t the idea or the vision behind them, it’s the execution. Even modern EHRs, having learned from previous ill-fated experiments like the NHS’ Connecting for Health programme, are still failing to get practitioners on board thanks to their inefficient and tedious design. For designers, health is one of the areas in which some of the simplest changes can make the biggest impact. We work frequently with public health bodies, and for us there are five changes we believe can be made to make healthcare systems work better for everyone.

1. Get Patients Involved

Design thinking is a human centred a methodology of design rooted in research and user insights that seeks to match user needs with business objectives. Typically a design thinking project begins with stakeholder and user workshops, where designers try to understand the motivations, goals, and behaviours of everyone involved; from organisation hiring the designers to the end users of the product or service. With healthcare this process becomes even more crucial — at the end of the day the healthcare service exists for the benefit the patient. Failing to consider the needs of the patient in the design of healthcare systems — even for professional systems which the patient does not directly interact with — is a recipe for failure. In all cases, patients must be at the heart of the solution.

2. Put Designers Into Hospitals

Putting designers into a hospital or clinic can amplify the power and impact of the solutions they design. Auckland City Hospital did just that by building a design lab on their premises, giving their designers unparalleled access to patients and practitioners. This not only allowed the designers to get a better grasp of patient and staff problems, but ended up inspiring the hospital staff to take a more critical look at the way they did things and contribute their own ideas. Alternatively, mock environments such as DHI’s Experience Lab allow innovators the opportunity to test out new ideas in precisely reconstructed medical scenarios.

3. Start at the Outside and Work Your Way In

Health is hugely important to people’s lives and public bodies are traditionally cautious entities. Paired together, these facts make it unlikely a hospital trust is going to allow designers to walk in and overhaul core systems. Our belief is that by starting with smaller scale projects is a way to evidence the transformative power of design.Taking on low-risk, non-core problems in a contained environment is a place to start. For example, we recently worked with the Scottish Ambulance Service to build a prototype app for teams in the field to find quick access to information on local hospitals, protocols and procedures. Staff admitted surprise at the amount of time that could be shaved off routine tasks thanks to the overhauled information architecture, visual simplicity, and considered user journey. Challenging established processes in this way can break complacency, change behaviours, and lead to larger and more impactful challenges.

4. Open Up Systems

One of the problems facing health systems across the world is that interoperability, whether between hospitals or even between departments, is considered a low-reward venture. Often low on the list of priorities, interoperability is not seen as a critical issue, given that most people only visit one clinic or hospital regularly. While rising mobility is negating the latter point, boosting access to systems using APIs and other sharing technologies opens up the opportunity of innovation. Better medicines and medical procedures, the rise of connected health devices, a better understanding of preventative care, and a preference for care at home is moving us towards bedless hospitals and shorter, less frequent visits to doctors. For this to work we will need to have a lot of systems talking to each other, and interoperability will no longer be unprofitable or a ‘nice to have’, but rather a mission critical part of the healthcare system.

5. Don’t Just Design for Hospitals

Health is a holistic experience. Designing systems which can offer guidance and support for people outwith hospitals and empower them to understand their healthcare needs will not only result in a less anxious experience, but can cut waiting times through less unnecessary visits to the doctor, and faster and more accurate diagnoses.

There are a lot of challenges to overcome in making our healthcare systems better. Cutting edge, consumer grade UX from the likes of Snapchat or Facebook show it’s possible to design interfaces that are not only engaging and delightful to use, but can change behaviours. It’s only a matter of time before high quality UX and interface design intersects with the trend towards more holistic care, as well as the rise in consumer health products and services.

Done right, design has the power to radically overhaul the way we approach our own health, and how the health service supports us. But we have to start somewhere, so why not start today?

Screenmedia is a design and innovation practice. Get in touch to find out how we can help you on your next digital project.


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