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How to overcome the lack of user-centered design in healthcare

User-centered design of digital tools in the healthcare sector has long been neglected — at the expense of doctors and patients.

While almost all areas of our daily life have already been digitized, a visit to a hospital feels more like a journey into the past from a technological perspective. The digitization of the health care sector lags behind even though there is a frantic effort to create digital innovations. So far the results leave both patients and doctors dissatisfied. Digital solutions from other areas such as travel, transport, or shopping fit perfectly into our daily lives. But when it comes to handling life-threatening procedures, we are still in an analog age.

User-centered design of digital tools in the healthcare sector has long been neglected — at the expense of doctors and patients. @medudoc

User-centered design of digital tools in the healthcare sector has long been neglected — at the expense of doctors and patients. @medudoc

But not only from a patient perspective it is difficult to understand why hardly anything is happening in this area. Doctors in particular, who are used to working with smartphones and digital media from their everyday lives, have to work with outdated methods to carry out their work. The result of these often still analog processes is an immense administrative effort. Doctors in hospitals are already fully occupied and do not have any spare time. In addition to the actual medical work and interaction with the patient, there are also numerous administrative tasks for the preparation and follow-up of medical interventions.

A study by the Association of Employed and Officials Doctors of Germany e.V. “Marburger Bund” has examined how much time is lost for patient care due to administrative tasks that go beyond medical activities. The daily time required for data collection, documentation, and organizational activities has increased significantly compared to previous surveys. In 2013, only 8 percent of hospital doctors stated that they were involved in administrative activities for at least four hours a day, now it is 35 percent. 25 percent say they spend three hours a day doing administration; 26 percent estimate the daily expenditure of time to be two hours and 14 percent of those questioned spend one hour a day with administrative tasks.

“Marburger Bund” has examined how much time is lost for patient care due to administrative tasks that go beyond medical activities. @marburgerbund

Looking at these numbers, it is difficult to comprehend why the time spent on bureaucratic efforts by doctors increases, while technological innovations improve almost all other areas of life and reduce needless time-consuming activities. Of course, there are software programs and information systems that manage basic hospital processes. However, if you take a closer look at their user interfaces, design, and handling by doctors, it becomes clear that these tools were not preceded by user-centered considerations and or ideation processes. Non-meaningful user design leads to the fact that using these digital programs eventuall takes up more time than it should actually be saving.

Former Chief Health Strategist at Google, Roni Zeiger, M.D., explains why health IT companies haven’t paid enough attention to user experience in the past:

“When you’re building for experts, you don’t think much about the user interface. (…) When health IT started, there was no consumer market. And medicine is an unsusually expert-centric and somewhat arrogant field, so we were slow to embrace user-centered design."

 

According to Zeiger it is not the technological kinks the healthcare sector should be worried about but rather the fact that the digital solutions in place right now lack a design thinking approach.

So user-centered design of digital tools in the health sector has long been neglected. Hospitals have to bear the costs resulting from these disadvantages. For doctors, however, the situation is also hardly bearable any longer. Since the proportion of the working population is decreasing and the aging population is growing, experts forecast a serious shortage of skilled workers by 2025. Doctors need useful digital tools to help them manage their everyday work life.

But how can user-centered design in healthcare be accomplished?

Based on our experience as well as on conversations and discussions we had with medical personnel we put together the four most important steps to develop digital products for doctors that are user-centered.

1. Become a shadow — Conduct research in a hospital environment

To understand how everyday processes in the hospital work, you have to be part of it. Important details for product development usually only become apparent when you can understand what the day-to-day work of doctors looks like. The possibility of accompanying doctors in their work and hanging on them like a shadow is naturally not a matter of course, but in our eyes, it is essential to identify the real needs of users.

2. Get down to the bottom — Verify needs for doctors and patients alike

As soon as processes are clear and needs have been identified in everyday hospital life, they must be validated. In interviews with doctors and patients, it is possible to determine the extent to which the current status quo of certain processes is satisfactory or not. Market and trend research also quickly reveal whether there are already adequate solutions for the specific area or whether the potential has not yet been tapped. If there are no adequate useful solutions in place it is time to move forward and develop a prototype.

3. Get relevant partners onboard — Include doctors and patients in your product development

For the prototype creation, cooperation with doctors is the foundation for successful product development. It has been standard practice for software companies to present hospitals and physicians with a fait accompli and offer them products that were not developed with physicians. For many doctors, this approach is new and at the beginning also a challenge to find appropriate partners. But this step is crucial to create a product that is 100% centered towards the needs and demands of the users — the doctors.

4. Leave the garage early — Test the prototype with doctors and patients asap

Bringing a product to market in the health sector, which has been created and perfected for years in isolation without medical feedback, can only lead to predicaments after implementation. To find out in which direction a prototype has to develop it is essential to identify the needs of physicians in terms of user behavior, click paths, and design requirements. The development of the prototype is an interactive process in which doctors have to test in regular sprints which features are useful or still missing.

We believe these four points should set the direction for successful product development for digital health products. It’s time to provide physicians with user-centric solutions that minimize redundant tasks in their stressful workday. Of course, we know sticking to these four steps is a challenging approach. Especially, when it comes to getting doctors on board as partners it is harder to convince them to invest in something that does not yet exist. But eventually the arduous work will pay off once a product is created that is surely user centered and offers proven value to doctors.

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