User-Centric Design: The Key to Health IT Innovation

By Kali Durgampudi, chief technology, innovation officer, Greenway Health.

Kali Durgampudi

Like so many industries in today’s Third Industrial Revolution, the pace of innovation in healthcare today is fast and ever-changing. New technologies – like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, big data, the Internet of Things (IoT) and voice recognition – are at the heart of applications and tools that are becoming demanded by patients and more ingrained in clinicians’ daily workflows.

For vendors developing new solutions based on these technologies, it appears they find themselves in a ‘race,’ striving to be first-to-market in order to establish their competitive edge. But being on the bleeding edge of innovation isn’t always easy. The healthcare industry has not been immune to this rapid quest for first-mover advantage. Often when this occurs, these new solutions sacrifice the quality and functionality required to deliver on promised improvements.

Think about the initial introduction of the electronic health record (EHR). Billed as a way to make practices and physicians more efficient, many early EHR solutions had the opposite effect – creating a significant learning curve and adding to physicians’ workloads overall. While EHRs may have made great strides toward digitizing medical records, taking paper and manual processes out of the equation, they often created new problems that placed different burdens on practices, providers and patients. In fact, in the early days, physicians reported spending more than half of their workday – an average of six hours – using the EHR, plus another 86 minutes after hours.

But EHRs are not the only healthcare technology solution attributing to this challenge – it transcends innovation across the entire health IT sector. As an industry, we must take a step back and slowdown to ensure all new technology can deliver meaningful change to practices, providers and patients.

How to Design New Healthcare Technology with the End-User in Mind

A key to ensuring healthcare technology delivers true benefits is considering how it will fit into day-to-day operations of the end-user – whether that be a patient, a nurse, a surgeon or a billing manager. Before introducing any new technology to the market, make sure your first intention is to get it right.

To do that, engineering teams must employ “user-centered design,” a concept that emerged in the mid-1980s. This approach, defined by the International Standards Organization, “aims to make systems usable and useful by focusing on the users, their needs and requirements, and by applying human factors/ergonomics, usability knowledge and techniques.” The goal ultimately is to enhance effectiveness and efficiency, improve human well-being, user satisfaction, accessibility and sustainability, and to counteract possible adverse effects of use on human health, safety and performance.

User-centered design in healthcare could entail shadowing a nurse to observe his workflow when triaging patients, following a surgeon to see how she develops post-op papers, or interviewing patients to understand how they obtain healthcare information in their daily lives.

With that experience, you can then ascertain what capabilities would make users’ lives easier or more effective. From there, determine if there’s a way to improve an existing product on the market to fulfill needs, or whether a completely new platform is required. 

Key Questions to Answer When Implementing a User-Centered Design Approach

There are several questions you must consider when following this method:

Who will use the system/solution and for what purpose? Design is more than aesthetic. You need to first consider how different types of people – end users – will engage with the solution. Is it going to be designed for front desk staff with their own work stations? Must it be available for doctors and nurses on the move? Is it an application that patients will want to access from their phone? Form, functionality and features all matter.

What do users do before and after they interact with the system? Just as important as it is to understand who and how a user will interact with the system, it’s equally important to understand holistically how the user structures their day. For example, when will they use the system most? At the beginning of the day before they even come into the office? At the end of the day to reduce their administrative time during peak business hours? By understanding these workflows, teams can further think through ways to give users greater access, such as through mobile applications.

What pain points do the users face with their current technologies and processes? It could be too many clicks to complete a task. Maybe they don’t like having to switch back and forth between different applications to get all the information they need. Or perhaps the forms take too long to fill out. Discussion with users will uncover the real reasons why they don’t engage fully with their existing technology, and will result in key areas of improvement.

In an ideal world, what do the users want the new system to do? Encourage users to dream big. Find out what kinds of tasks they’d like help with, or repetitive activities that may be easy to automate or streamline. Survey potential users to find out what they truly want to achieve, and consider that as part of the design and functionality.

Are there specific business or clinical goals that will drive implementation of new technology? Some practices want to reduce staff burdens or improve their margins and efficiency. Others may be looking for better ways to engage patients, supporting value-based care and improved population health initiatives. Think with the future of healthcare in mind, considering that new demands and government regulations are always changing.

Before racing to market with new products or solutions, encourage your team to take a step back and ask these questions. Doing so could not only yield valuable insights that engineers not working in the healthcare field day-to-day would even consider, it may also spark even more ideas or needs that might not have been previously discussed or discovered. By slowing the pace of change and taking a thoughtful approach to new technology design, with the end-user in mind, innovation in health IT can be even more impactful.

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