Healthcare Has Dodged Digital Upgrades for Years—But That’s All Coming to an End Now

To meet savvy consumers' needs, industry changes need to be embraced

Every industry is undergoing rapid change in the digital age, and healthcare is no different. - Credit by Getty Images

The healthcare industry is being shaken by digital. Most of the major players are still reluctant to transition. How should the leading companies approach an imperative transition to digital? Design thinking is the only chance for the healthcare industry to improve both the provider and patient experiences. It is way of thinking and working that focuses on user needs, technological possibilities and business requirements. It is an iterative process that drives innovation, which is desperately needed by an industry that lives and dies by customer experience and yet is operating at a level far behind the times.

Unlike other industries, healthcare services are essential and often a matter of life and death, traditionally placing these organizations in a position of power. This has allowed them to remain digitally backward with little fear of consequence to their business. As a result, practitioners have been stuck using medical systems designed 20 years ago, limiting the way that they’ve interacted with patients and offer care.

However, transitioning to digital has now become a “do or die” imperative for healthcare organizations as they compete with digitally native players to meet modern-day customer expectations.

Most design studios and tech startups focus on “innovative” patient experiences: cool self-diagnostic tools, fancy medical wearables and personal health predictors. Indeed, these are the sexiest part of the job. But those advancements don’t address the fundamental issues that stagnate the healthcare industry. Research has found that people are first and foremost looking for improvements on baseline services, such as cost estimators, access to personal health records and post-care instructions.

Shifting from a process-centric organization to a user-first experience isn’t just a matter of good UI and cool wearables. It’s a process of carrying fundamental transformation that impacts and involves all layers of the organization: technology, operations, patient management, sales, etc.

Transitioning to digital has now become a “do or die” imperative for healthcare organizations as they compete with digitally native players to meet modern day customer expectations.

The following are three areas of focus where design thinking can transform complex systems.

Concentrate on process efficiency and optimization of information

The intrinsic complexity of the healthcare systems is unavoidable, and the cost to maintain it is astronomical. Compliance, data collection, security risks, lack of trust in third party systems or just old habits (in 2017, 40 percent of doctor’s offices were still using fax machines to order lab tests) generate roadblocks, slow down organizations and frustrate users, allowing for new players in the space to take over.

Like decluttering your garage, the first unavoidable step is to put old stuff in the dumpster. This is also true for legacy healthcare systems. Although it’s perceived as painful and problematic, by using design thinking, it can actually be fun, and the benefits are colossal. From a user standpoint, a decluttered process flow will appear clear, smart and fluid.

Put users at the center of the system

Traditionally, healthcare products have been built to serve the logistics and operations of the healthcare company first and the customers second, or last. As people are forced to use them anyway to communicate or access critical information, those products remain poorly designed and convoluted at best.

People don’t want to fill out a form, they want to get their blood test results quickly and conveniently. Focusing first on fundamental user motivations and discovering unmet needs represents a culture shift for many large companies. If these organizations bring on user research and design thinking as a practice and build hybrid, multi-disciplinary teams combining designers, engineers, operations, sales, etc., to break traditional silos, it will force user-centered design to become part of the internal process and culture.

Generate patients’ and population data and insights

There are countless missed opportunities to make sense of collected medical data to inform individual- and population-level insights for prevention and care. Unstructured data and clinical notes are stored on antiquated, incompatible systems and mostly rely on individual expertise to decipher them.

On the service side, patient-processing workflows can be improved by using modular systems and interfaces. By using APIs (application programming interfaces), developers effectively have a set of building blocks that enable them to create seamless experiences by having best-in-class services work together in the same environment instead of having to build each element of the experience from scratch. People can access their personal information on mobile, in the right place at the right time and interact with their physicians and healthcare services seamlessly. On the medical side, messy, unstructured medical data and patient records can be processed and presented in a smart usable way to generate better prediction using machine learning and data visualization.

In the same way users have come to expect banks to educate them in financial literacy by using user-friendly apps and dashboards, they now expect healthcare organizations to provide clear and meaningful medical data. New smaller players like 23andMe are jumping on this consumer trend, as others have jumped on FinTech. They have managed to integrate their customers’ digital behaviors into the core of their products while moving away from traditional IT to a user-friendly, web-based experience.

Design needs to drive technology—not the other way around. Design thinking is a practice built to solve problems. This is what design signifies at its core: generating the most transformative solutions for the business by identifying the most critical user goals and outcome. This does not mean doing whatever users are asking for (e.g., users never asked Apple to remove the physical keyboards from the Blackberry to create the iPhone). Design thinking collects user pain points and constructs what’s best for the users, not what’s best for the IT department.


Alexa Varsavsky is associate creative strategy director at Code and Theory and leads the product definition and development of the Quest Diagnostics Healthcare Professional Portal to provide a more efficient and seamless test ordering experience for doctors, nurses and phlebotomists.
Matthieu Mingasson is group director of product at Code and Theory, in charge of leading the product strategy practice.