The road to the technological futureworld we live in is littered with the corpses of technologies that have been replaced by newer, more efficient means. Fax machines, pagers, and increasingly the land line telephone are no longer in heavy use. However, while this is true for the greater American public, you can still find them in abundance in the world of healthcare.
Many of the computers in use at hospitals and clinics today are still running on Windows XP at low resolutions. What’s worse, many healthcare UIs appear not to (and indeed may not) have been updated since 1995, and don’t benefit from the usability best practices that have been developed over the past 20 years.
It’s easy to understand why these facilities don’t upgrade their computers to something more modern when you consider that the vast majority are nothing more than thin clients, serving as kiosks for data entry and retrieval. As a result, the pace of progress on the software tools available has been slow in keeping with the slow pace of hardware upgrades. But mercifully, mobile has shown its capacity to change this.
Mobile changes everything
Mobile, especially when coupled with Bring Your Own Device, or BYOD, is the Trojan Horse for better UX in healthcare software. Healthcare professionals carry in their pockets computers that are often more powerful than those sitting on their desks. And when you consider all the benefits that mobile brings, including location awareness, photography, video, voice, messaging, notifications, and more, you quickly realize that it is poised to revolutionize healthcare the same way is has with other industries.
Getting there will require a mindset change for many. The company I work for, Cureatr, builds tools to help healthcare professionals communicate more efficiently about patient care. One of our main features is a messenger similar to Facebook Messenger or Whatsapp. When my doctor asked me to explain the product, he seemed confused. “Why wouldn’t I call them on a land line or send a page like I do today?” When I asked him if he ever texts his loved ones, he said he does, regularly.
“So why don’t you call them instead?” I asked.
You could see the lightbulb turn on. This was a new way of thinking about software in healthcare, despite it being a technology he was already benefiting from in his daily life. As time goes on, there will be many, many more examples just like this.
Where design can help
Healthcare, being no less the system of taking care of human beings and all of our composite parts, is broad, and there are similarly many ways designers can help. A group called Prescribe Design has identified 12 areas where designers can make a difference in healthcare. Others have set out to define best practices for designing healthcare interfaces. As the health tech renaissance is already in its early days, so is the design renaissance.
As someone who designs for healthcare, my own background is not in health, but in consumer apps. When joining, as with any new industry, there was a world of new terms and acronyms to learn — EMR, SNF, ADT, ACO, HIE, HIPAA — which can seem daunting at first. But looking beyond the initial difficulties, I believe that designers of consumer apps are the best suited to bring about change here. Anyone who has designed software for an audience of millions knows from experience how to make an interface that is usable and accessible by a wide audience. “User friendly” takes on new meaning when you’ve built interfaces for users of all descriptions. These are skills desperately needed in healthcare.
Successful design requires an understanding of how your work will fit the needs of the ecosystem. This means partnering with healthcare professionals who know their workplace and the limitations they face, and then working within those limitations. When we decided to build a web version of our messenger, we knew it had to look and feel as modern as our mobile app, and we knew we had to build it to support Internet Explorer 8 at 1024×768 resolution. These challenges are not for the faint of heart, but can have huge payoffs when done correctly. Designing FarmVille, it ain’t.
“…the Institute of Medicine issued a report stating that waste accounted for thirty per cent of health-care spending, or some seven hundred and fifty billion dollars a year, which was more than our nation’s entire budget for K-12 education.”
— Atul Gawande
There are big problems to solve. Bad UX, like other inefficiencies, leads to higher costs and lower quality care. Great skill is needed — alerts that are too subtle or too persistent can put lives in danger. But when you consider that you or your loved ones may end up needing to receive care in a system that is still reliant on fax machines, you realize the great privilege we as designers have to help. The emergence of mobile creates an opportunity for change that didn’t even exist 5 years ago. This is an industry on the verge of a technological & design renaissance that needs the very best to help usher it in.