Designing With Empathy in Health Care

by Damian Priday

Every time I see a pitch from a healthcare startup it will, at some point, offer you the story of a patient whom they could have saved. Their reason for being, their existence, comes from the inspirational story of a patient who might have made it if only their technology had existed. For the startup, this was their light bulb, save the world moment. They could provide you with endless statistics on improvement in care and number of lives saved, and none of it would matter without the tug on your heartstrings that a real empathetic story provides. This is how we sell healthcare technology, and it should also be the way that we design the experience around it.

Empathy is important to any design strategy, but given the nature of the end user, it should be even more important in health care. On the surface, your user is either sick or injured, but deep down they could be at their most vulnerable and confused. Despite the uptick in information available to them, the patient is still not sure about what is wrong. In many cases they could already think their problem is worse than it actually is. Reactions to any new information or input can change at a dime. With one word a patient can go from “I’m fine” to “I’m scared” and that comes across in different forms, ranging from inquisition to denial and even anger. You could be dealing with a person at their absolute worst and it is important to be sensitive to that. Then again, that is only the start.

So what do we mean by empathy? We mean taking the user into consideration and guiding them through the experience in a way that is meaningful and comfortable to them. The user experience must be centered around a person who is, by definition, not well. Ask questions, provide feedback, offer a guiding hand through this difficult time. The technology we have at hand is going to do tremendous things for efficiency in the healthcare system, but if it lacks empathy then it will ultimately fail. Efficiency and speed may be important on the doctor side, but making sure the journey goes at a pace that the patient is comfortable with is just as important. If you have to slow it down to benefit the patient, then by all means slow it down!

Every patient is bringing a history with them. Not just a medical record, but a history of sentiments, feelings, and emotions that are attributed to every visit, and every interaction. Medical records cannot tell you how a patient felt at each event in their history, but they may give you some insights into the preconceptions they carry with them. What if they are thinking about the pain in their abdomen and hoping it is not cancer … again? So how do we design a user experience with empathy in mind?

It takes one person to get sick, but it takes two people to get well again. In the patient centered healthcare industry of the future, this is where we must focus our efforts.Focusing on the patient means ensuring that they have as much time with their doctor as possible or meeting with the right doctor sooner. We must feel for the patient. Understand that they are in a difficult situation and remove the obstacles to diagnosis and treatment. Accessing patient records from a mobile site, carrying insurance information in a mobile app, or teleconferencing with a doctor who can diagnose and prescribe medication over a video call are all ways that we can show that health care is there for the patient as they need it.

The user experience begins and ends with empathy. It matters more than in any other industry given the sensitivity of the subject and the fragility of the user. I can go on for days about how technology will create efficiencies in how we manage and deliver health care, but if we forget about the patient then it will serve no purpose.

 

About Fresh Tilled Soil

Fresh Tilled Soil is a Boston-based user interface and experience design firm focused on human centered digital design