Healthcare: Time to put patients at the forefront


By Hilary Stephenson, managing director at Sigma

Over the course of the last few years, technological advancements – particularly in mobile – have helped to progress a number of sectors including retail, banking, and travel. From collecting loyalty points via a mobile phone, to mobile banking apps, or booking an apartment on the other side of the world through a phone, mobile has grown so rapidly and become a massive enabler for many people.

It is unfortunate therefore that up until now the healthcare industry has been one of the sectors that has lagged behind when it comes to adopting and using mobile technology effectively. However, the potential impact that mobile technology could have on the sector, and specifically patients, is huge. So the issues facing it need be to addressed, and quickly.

Facing the barriers

Currently, commissioning red tape and regulations are huge barriers that prevent the healthcare industry from taking a real step forward when it comes to technology. The sector is understandably focussed on compliance, but at the expense of the patient experience, which poses an issue for innovation and the effectiveness of technologies.

For example, we’ve seen a noticeable spike in health and well-being apps, but they are often inconsistent and don’t offer enough benefits to encourage patients to actually use them.

This could be down to the limitations of regulations, privacy concerns, or a fear that the information they provide could be wrongly interpreted by patients, yet due to the emphasis being placed on compliance, many designers and developers are having to sacrifice the usability, which is making for a bad user experience.

In the UK in particular, the issues surrounding commissioning are also huge; smaller commercial organisations or start ups with great ideas for innovations are struggling to get them heard, as procurement can often be slow and only done on a large scale only.

On top of the issues surrounding compliance and commissioning, there is also a disjointed approach to technology and how it can work most effectively in the sector. There is currently no clear union or dialogue between patients, designers, innovators, and healthcare professionals, which is hampering progress.

We must consider a co-design approach, utilising workshops that bring all of these groups together, in order to generate ideas for technologies and feasible applications that will benefit all parties.

And while there is a lot of great research, academia and innovations now being spun out of various organisations, currently technology isn’t lessening the strain on the healthcare sector as it should do. Worryingly, we are now seeing patients taking this issue into their own hands as they struggle to get what they need directly from the healthcare industry.

Rise of health hackers

The huge gap in the market for technology built with a patient-centred design means we have seen a rise in patients doing it themselves, or ‘health hacking’ as many are calling it. One of the best examples of health hacking I can think of is Tim Omer’s DIY diabetes monitoring kit [Guardian 2015]. As help wasn’t available in an affordable or timely manner from the health sector, Omer built his own technology. This just demonstrates even on a small scale what we can do if we collaborate effectively.

Fortunately, it’s is something that is starting to be noticed by the likes of Cancer Research UK, which teamed up with AstraZeneca recently for its Digital Health Hackathon, a forum that it used to speak to patients about what they want from healthcare technology. This was a great step forward, and other initiatives such as UKhealthcamp are focused on community-driven concepts and service design improvements.

Omer, and others who you might describe as ‘digital disruptors’, provide a new perspective on the discussion around healthcare technology, just like the creators of Airbnb, Netflix, Spotify, and Uber did in other sectors. All these platforms were born out of users that simply had access to the web and mobile devices, and were trying to solve issues or fill a gap in a big market.

However, the rise of health hackers and digital disruptors in the healthcare sector should be seen as somewhat of a red flag. In what can sometimes be a case of life or death situations, patients shouldn’t need to be creating DIY technologies.

For technology to progress as it should in the healthcare arena, there now needs to be more communication between patients, healthcare professionals and creators of healthcare technology. What we need is for healthcare experts, the Government, tech professionals, and patients to come together so that we can find common ground. Through this we can undertake a co-design process that can be informed by real patient needs. Only from here will we be able to build technology that is beneficial to all.

Sigma is a digital user experience agency, providing digital solutions and an improved user experience for all.


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