Healthcare UX: How Design Can Solve Biggest Challenges for Patients, Clinicians, and Institutions

Masha Panchenko

As a design agency, we are twice as happy when we get a chance to work on products with a purpose, such as healthcare projects. Recently we’ve had a couple of projects in this field and we can say it is both an encouraging and challenging experience. 

Working on products that aim to preserve human health is highly rewarding, but it is not the easiest field for UX designers. Today we will talk about challenges in healthtech.

Some background

Healthcare industry is being really slow to adopt information technologies. The Nuffield research states that there are at least 10 years of distance between healthcare and other industries in digitizing their processes.

There’s no surprise that in 2021, the year when the demand for digital solutions is higher than ever, healthcare is trending. But we argue that it is not just momentum: it had a big potential even before that.

Investor Kevin Ryan, whose investment activity focuses on healthcare tech, says that the certain backwardness of the industry creates a big pool of opportunities for startups and investors:

…starting two or three years ago, I just felt like both in New York and in healthcare in general, there were huge opportunities because there are so many aspects of the healthcare system that just don’t work well. It’s incredibly expensive, the electronic records are not great, it’s super inefficient. Most of us are very frustrated by this whole healthcare system, which means opportunities.

Ryan hired a team of nine medicine professionals, “doctorpreneurs” so to say, to select the projects to fund. And he’s not alone: other investors turn their attention to healthcare, too.

Telehealth alone shows a striking revenue growth: according to the report by McKinsey, total annual revenues grew 83% in 2021 compared to 2019. This graph shows that telemedicine has taken on a completely different volume of operation compared to pre-pandemic times.

telehealth usage statistics 2020
Image credit: McKinsey

There is no doubt that the market is growing fast. But what about user experience? In healthcare, it is quite complicated, to say the least.

Healthcare and user experience

With all that delay in technology advancement of the industry, user experience is even more behind, about 10 years or more. Developers of healthcare tech do not pay much attention to user experience as there is often no competition, so no need to do “extra” work when there is enough demand anyway.

While all the lifestyle and work management apps use everything that can give them an advantage in marketing, design, communication, healthcare software providers don’t have to worry about that.

Main challenges for UX in healthcare

One of the biggest problems for doctors used to be a large amount of paperwork. They had to dedicate enormous amounts of time just to write down the symptoms, diagnosis, prescriptions, and many more. There is no surprise that doctors’ illegible handwriting has become a meme.

healthcare ux

Healthcare system digitization was supposed to free a bunch of time for doctors to do their direct work: interacting with patients. However, it turned out that working with software still occupies a large chunk of their time.

By 2016, physicians came to spend about two hours doing computer work for every hour spent face-to-face with a patient. Their working hours increased and it led to a large number of burnout and depression cases among medical specialists. To better understand the level of frustration that doctors experience with those new systems, read Atul Gawande’s article Why Doctors Hate Their Computers.

Healthcare software is often aimed at keeping track of many health indicators, more than a single doctor is able to track. However, no artificial intelligence (AI) yet is trusted enough to give professional medical advice. Apps still need lots of human input to function. As a result, doctors are being busy interacting with the app, thus having less time to communicate directly with the patients.

When our team was working on the design for Refera, a dentist referral solution, one of the most important things for us was to simplify the user flow to make navigation as easy as possible. Software for medical management will always have too many things happening on the screen. We tried to introduce some visual hierarchy with an accent color and made an image of the oral cavity for choosing the tooth that needs to be repaired.

healthcare ux. Create referral screen in Refera, dentist referral app
Image credit: Eleken for Refera

More is too much

Until digital instruments were introduced in the healthcare system to help keep each patient’s data, much of that information was lost, and those pieces that were saved by conscientious patients could contain volumes of data that are too big for a single doctor to analyze.

One of the objectives of software, along with diminishing the amount of handwritten paperwork, is to keep all the databases on each patient saved in one place. It allows us to keep large amounts of information, but these solutions often lead to the same effect: with an abundance of information, doctors get overwhelmed, and easily miss the most important things.

How do healthcare startups address this situation? So far, the answer is a faster technological advance. When tech tools become more reliable, they can perform more tasks. Nowadays, AI solutions in healthcare are working on harder tasks, such as diagnostics. 

Such tech companies as Kheiron Medical Technologies are working on developing AI-powered software that can detect breast cancer at early stages. Another example is DiA Imaging Analysis, which automates the analysis of ultrasound scans.

healthcare ux. DiA Imaging Analysis
Image credit: DiA Imaging Analysis

Uniqueness of technology

Many software products in healthcare rely on a unique technology. This creates an unbeatable value proposition, thus leading to the negligence of user experience. When users have no choice because they need the technology, the better design won’t do much for the product. It just doesn’t pay off.

Hard to test

As it often happens with product companies, when there is very little investment in design, there will be even less investment in UX research. Less attention to the research means less testing, and less testing means poor user experience.

Specific challenge of the healthcare industry is that recruiting doctors for usability testing is more complicated than recruiting regular users. There are many hospital regulations, bureaucracy, and heavy workload of medical workers. Healthcare products invest largely in functionality testing, while usability testing is an afterthought. 

Long development cycles

In healthcare, digital products are often developed slower than in other industries: there has to be new technology or a proven idea, then it needs to comply with all the regulations, go through all the bureaucratic processes… And often these are the products that are vital to human health, so that the launch date has to be as fast as possible.

Proper UX research and testing require time. In many cases, after a round of testing, the product needs to be modified and tested again. With high in-demand products, nobody wants to waste time on those parts of the design process that don’t relate directly to functionality.

The dark side of metrics

When digital products enter the healthcare industry, their efficiency inevitably starts being measured in quantitative metrics, such as time of response or number of patients served. However, in such a delicate sphere as healthcare, sometimes metrics can do more harm than good.

As Chris Keiss, healthcare UX designer, states, strict metrics always bring Goodhart's law to play. For example, if a doctor’s performance is evaluated based on the number of patients that they can consult in one day, they will likely try consulting them faster than normal. Naturally, this approach can lead to less attention given to each patient.

Goodhart's law. When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure
Image credit: sketchplanations

The need for quantitative metrics can be argued upon, but in healthcare, the price of introducing such metrics can be too high. We may think that the only metric that matters is the health of patients, but it is very hard to calculate objectives, especially given the relatively short product design cycles.

We discussed more on why both quantitative and qualitative metrics are important in our article about UX design KPIs. In Eleken, we think that user experience specialists have to adjust their measuring principles to the industry specifics.

Designing for doctors, patients, companies

The situation in healthtech looks similar to the classical “good-fast-cheap” rule: you can’t have all three at the same time. UX designers have a hard time balancing the needs of doctors, patients, and companies. Often they have to prioritize one group over the others.

As the market grows and the competition increases as well, there are more and more solutions aimed at providing the best user experience to patients. It is paramount in the world where patients can choose between different software providers.

One of the modern healthcare solutions, Lively, a startup for health savings accounts, is applying a consumer-first approach. The founders Alex Cyriac and Shobin Uralil tell that the idea came from their personal experience. Naturally, the product that they build puts user experience in the center.

healthcare ux. Lively
Image credit: Lively

Final thoughts

Complexity of products, low-competition technologies, neverending bureaucracy — the obstacles on the way to user-oriented healthcare software are numerous. In the healthcare industry, the stakes are high and user experience is not the highest priority. 

Yet we are optimistic about the future: with the rapid growth of the healthtech market, the demand for good UX design will grow, as well. In 2021, we’ve had a chance to work with healthcare products that take user experience seriously — and this is very encouraging. We hope to see more human-centered design in software aimed at preserving our health. Curious what it looks like? Check out our list of human-centered design examples.

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