Written by Henry Poskitt, originally published in September, 2015

We are now entering a phase where the user (that is, the patient) is truly being placed at the centre of things. Technological advances, the Internet, and the need to increase cost efficiency due to an increasingly expensive patient profile, are all contributing to significant structural shifts that see the principles of UX beginning to inform healthcare.

Industry leaders such as Kaiser Permanente have started to use the language of user experience to talk about revamping the healthcare sector, referencing ‘end-to-end processes’ and ‘touchpoints’. As a result, there is now a movement towards a more holistic view of the entire spectrum of a patient’s wellbeing, from preventative care right through to out-patient care.

Healthcare is a vast and complex area, with many players and hierarchies. Here are six of the main trends happening in the sector right now and the design challenge each one poses.

Trend 01: Electronic Health Records

The healthcare IT infrastructure is light years behind what it could be. Traditionally, the design of electronic health records (EHR) has been overly-technical and unintuitive, and as a result has been met with opposition by hospital staff. Additionally, most EHRs are complicated, non-interoperable systems that store data in silos. Now however, all this is changing. New laws relating to ‘meaningful use’ and ‘interoperability’ have encouraged not only the adoption of EHRs, but also increased integration and usage of third-party apps such as patient management systems.

Design Challenge

Coming up with relevant solutions that meet new ‘meaningful use’ requirements and integrating these into existing hospital workflows seamlessly.

Trend 02: The Expansion of the Sphere of Care

With the proliferation of wearables and sensors, remote patient monitoring is becoming increasingly common. PwC state that one in five Americans now owns some kind of wearable technology. In particular, the range and sophistication of items for tracking health in the home is about to increase exponentially with the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT). At the moment, these at-home devices range from the more literal to the realm of science fiction, with electronics company Philips releasing an at-home defibrillator, while digital health company Proteus has developed an ingestible sensor that travels through your body, relaying information to your phone via a patch worn next to the skin.

Teleconferencing is also becoming a common means of communication between physician and patient, allowing housebound or remotely located individuals to speak to their doctors from the comfort of their own homes. The most significant impact of these at-home forms of monitoring and treatment is a reduction in the cost of administering treatment.

Design Challenge

Imagining interfaces to match novel medical products in the home, and ensuring that the installation and day to day use of those devices is straightforward and reliable so that the cost of support does not outweigh the saving made by treating patients at home.

Trend 03: The Growth of Big Data

This increase in the adoption of at-home technology is also contributing to the growth of big data in the healthcare sector. Researchers can now harvest specific, comprehensive information from individual patients on a much larger scale than before, contributing to data sets on the health of populations. This trend is hugely beneficial in terms of clinical trials, where crowd-sourcing of data through tools like ResearchKit has helped speed up the process.

It also paves the way for disease databases that can offer medical profiling of populations, a prospect that is appealing to both medical insurance providers (payors) and care providers. In general, there is a push towards more ‘evidence-based’ care, where physicians can access information on the effectiveness of treatments more methodically through these databases and make more informed choices when treating patients.

Design Challenge

Imagining how data can be extracted and made meaningful, visually appealing and translated into actionable terms. Designers like Nicolas Felton have already blazed a trail in this area, showing what effective data visualisation looks like.

Trend 04: The Integration of Care Teams

A natural progression from the large-scale collection of data is the need to order and integrate it. This is all part of the holistic healthcare picture. With the patient’s well-being in mind, all participants in the treatment of a patient need to have access to any information from the patient’s medical history and work as a team for the good of the patient — even if they’re not in the same building. GPs, hospital consultants, physiotherapists, nurses and even pharmacists should all be able to draw on the same electronic database at will, streamlining the process of treating the patient and minimising inefficiencies.

Design Challenge

Designing interfaces that work for each of the different medical sector players, but still providing a consistent experience for the patient.

Trend 05: The Customisation of Healthcare

Inevitably, once comprehensive individual profiling of patients through wearables and sensors becomes the norm, treatments start to become more customisable and precise. A service that is already becoming common is genome sequencing, which allows for the prediction of future illnesses by mapping the genetic make-up of the patient. In the past fifteen years, the cost of this process has dropped significantly to become accessible to the general public. Company 23andMe offer partial genome sequencing from a spit sample for $150, while Iceland already has a genomic biobank for their population. It is thought that everyone will have their genome sequenced within the next ten years as the cost continues to decline rapidly.

Design Challenge

Finding a way to present this very personal and sensitive information to consumers while adhering to regulatory restrictions, as well as designing tools to enable them to harness their genetic information.

Trend 06: The Patient as Consumer

A big part of the change in the healthcare sector is the shift in the patient’s role. The access to information offered by the Internet is increasing the autonomy of patients, who are now approaching a time when they will be able to access their own medical records and who already self-educate online with services like Webmd and Webicina. Increased awareness of their own health is causing patients to transition from the role of passive recipient of medical advice to active consumer.

Tailored websites have allowed patients to become savvier, and more demanding, with price comparison sites like Medicaltourism.com allowing patients to easily compare the cost and quality of health services in different countries. Wearables also allow people to take a more active role in monitoring their diet, exercise, and sleep patterns, with the practice of ‘lifelogging’ becoming common. The continual collection of data through apps like OptimizeMe gives individuals an overview of their lifestyle and its impact on their health.

Design Challenge

Coming up with products that are the simplest, most educational, and most transparent in their approach to logging the user’s data, in order to stand out in what is quickly becoming a crowded and noisy marketplace.

Conclusion

The sea-change that is occurring in the healthcare sector now presents a rich seam of opportunity for designers. However, there are several issues particular to this sector that designers will need to be aware of: the sensitivity of the data involved; the complexity of the regulatory environment; the need for interfaces that take accessibility issues into account; and how best to crack what is a traditionally risk-averse industry.

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