Experiencing Healthcare through Empathic Design and Technology

| By: Tamsin Greulich-Smith, Member, IT Strategy & Management, NUS-ISS

Singapore's health sector is facing unprecedented challenges, thanks in part to the changing demographic profile. More of us are living longer, placing an extended burden on traditional healthcare services, and the nature of our illnesses is also shifting. Fewer of us tend to die from communicable, infectious diseases. Instead we are more likely to find ourselves suffering from increasingly complex, chronic, long running conditions that require multiple care pathways. The way that healthcare is delivered must adapt to embrace this changing patient profile, with the role of technology and empathic design offering innovative, transformative solutions.

During a recent NUS-ISS seminar on 'Leading Healthcare Transformation through Empathic Design and Technology', experts from across the health technology ecosystem came together to consider how design thinking, ethnography and digital technology might integrate to tackle healthcare's pressing delivery challenges.

Smart Health by Stealth

Microsoft UK Enterprise Architect, Paul Thomas, opened the event with a look at the way his 98-year-old mother embraces technology, despite never having used a Personal Computer or a mobile phone in her life. Through various means, including wearable devices and sensors, technology allows her to live a healthy and independent life, without needing to understand how it works. As Paul described it, she is living "beyond the app".

Technology has the power to transform the way we manage health, both individually and at a population level, and to dramatically improve health outcomes, as it has done for many years. Yet many clinicians and patients alike express difficulty in accepting that a touch-based, personal healing profession can be driven by technology. It appears that for many, healthcare still needs the human touch.   

The key lies in the design of that technology experience suggested the speakers at the NUS-ISS seminar. Paul provided heart-warming illustrations of the role technology is playing in some of Microsoft's health and care programmes. 'Walking in the shoes' of those who will use the technology is a guiding principle for empathic design. Paul showed how his design team had been blindfolded and challenged to navigate 'in the dark' in order to better understand the needs of the visually impaired. This informed the development of their Cities Unlocked programme, which has the aim of transforming the life experience of the visually impaired. Rather than supporting them in travelling from A to B, a bone conducting headset with gyrometer allows the user to be spontaneous in their journeys, and illuminates their travels with information about the environment around them. Technology is the enabler, but the empathy in the design approach allows the technology to create even more transformational impacts.

Experience-Centric Design

"We don't design for people with disabilities," explained Paul, "we design for the experience."

This approach was reiterated by NUS-ISS' Service Innovation & Design Chief, Stuart Smith, who urged healthcare providers to change the way they think about patient engagement and service design. Holding up a bag of potato chips, he talked about the techniques used by fast food companies who very successfully encourage us to eat foods that we know to be unhealthy. Human decision making is based far less on logic than we would like to believe, and far more on emotional resonance. We remember experiences, not facts. We are driven by the way we feel, rather than by rational process.

Tamsin Greulich-Smith (middle), chairing the panel discussion at the seminar

Changing patient behaviors is critical if we wish to tackle hospital readmission rates and rightsiting of care, and yet we are not thinking creatively when it comes to bringing about such change by tapping into what makes people tick. We need to better understand what might motivate people to change, and design our solutions accordingly.

Empowering the Doctor in All of Us

In order to redistribute the balance of healthcare demands, new smart health platforms are emerging to support the individual in taking greater control of their health. Francois Cadiou, CEO and Founder of Healint, talked about how data and sensors can transform healthcare outcomes, but suggested that traditionally we focus on what is easy for clinicians to measure rather than what matters to a patient. Pain, for example, is not commonly used as a metric in health monitoring, yet from a patient's perspective, this is the experience they are most pressingly concerned with.

Furthermore, creating ways for people to record and measure their experience of pain should be designed from the perspective of someone who is physically struggling with pain. Healint's 'Migraine Buddy' app was developed with these principles in mind, using intuitive, simple interfaces. Crowdsourcing experience data and creating an accessible platform has enabled 'Migraine Buddy' users to start to predict migraine incidents and take preventive action, which has a powerful impact on their quality of life.

However, data alone is not enough to change healthcare, cautioned Founder and CEO of Singapore start-up, OurHealthMate, Abhinav Krishna. The OurHealthMate portal was established to allow people to play an active role in managing the healthcare of family members living abroad, through shared medical records, health monitoring data, and financial payment systems. However, he noted that not everyone understands what the data is telling them. It is important to interpret health data for non-clinical audiences, and leverage the opportunities that data provides to nudge better health choices.

Such platforms begin to foster a collaborative approach to healthcare, between patient and care provider, which aims to promote greater responsibility for self-care management. It also recognises the expertise of the patient in understanding the symptons they are feeling, and utlises that expertise in diagnosing and treating pain.

It is evident that smart health technologies have the potential to transform our experience of healthcare. However, the key message from the NUS-ISS seminar was that the technology alone cannot transform - empathic, experience-centric, user-informed design must play a fundamental role.

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