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What surprised me about designing for Healthcare

This is my first experience working in healthcare. I'm not sure what I expected, but wow, it's different. It's different in obvious ways: the fulfilment you feel from your work; the importance of the work given the impact on health outcomes; the challenge it is to work with older technologies.

What's more interesting however is the non-obvious ways in which it's been different – the things I just hadn't considered. I've made a list of some of these and expanded briefly on why they surprised me. I hope this helps other designers to onboard in to the health sector, or excites others to take the leap!

Just to note, not all of these themes are design specific.

There are so many gaps in the system.

You would be forgiven for assuming that a sector that accounts for ~10% of GDP in the UK (ONS: source) would be pretty well supplied with digital products. That, unfortunately, is just not true.

I knew archaic infrastructure and legacy software was to be expected, but the huge system wide gaps surprised me. Right now information is trapped, held captive by old technology, preventing truly coordinated care for the patient. I had presumed there would be basic solutions for freeing this information, but the majority are either paper or telephone – baffling.

High pain threshold, low expectations.

Generally speaking, peoples expectations for software in healthcare is pretty low, which means they have high pain thresholds when things break. This is a shame, and we're keen to change attitudes towards flaky software.

Ok it's flaky, but it MUST be safe.

Leading on, I was surprised by the tolerance – likely more a frustrated acceptance – for mistakes that originate from IT suppliers and software. BUT when it comes to clinical risk and compromising the safey, security and privacy of patients, there's no inch given – it must be gold standard.

Bottom up appetite for innovation, with slow middle and top layers.

Once you address the clinical concerns, the appetite for change from healthcare professionals is very healthy. Unfortunately, that appetite can fade as it grinds up against the glacial pace of approval, accreditation, and procurement. The system slows down the individual.

Smart professionals; great ideas; entrepreneurs?

I knew healthcare was blessed with incredibly hardworking and smart individuals – they wouldn't be in it if they weren't – but I was shocked by the number with entrepreneurial tendencies.

Working with clinicians and healthcare staff is immensely enjoyable. They are highly articulate, very reflective, and know their challenges intimately - on top of all of this they want to take an active role in helping us solve their problems. They'll often riff on ideas and come prepared for research calls with opportunities we hadn't spotted, explaining why we should see things differently. It's one of the best things about the role.

Generous people that are eager to help.

Which leads to this: healthcare professionals are just an incredible user group to work with. They are: considerate with their feedback; generous with their time; willing to help us understand their role in as much detail as possible. Not surprising given their choice of work, but still warming to experience.

Opinionated workflows that are deeply embedded.

I've noticed that one of the ways healthcare mitigates clinical risk is to have prescriptive workflows. These workflows can at times appear dogmatic and inflexible, but often that's just a risk aversion on the clinical side.

I hand't fully appreciated just how entrenched some of these workflows would be when I started, and as such, didn't interrogate them as critically as I should have in early designs. Lesson learnt.

A lot of those workflows are habitual and poorly optimised.

An extension to the previous point: the workflows that have lasted are often outdated and rely on analog technology to complete (phone, fax, letters). This can be demonstrated by the need to visit your GP practice to: pick up a paper copy of a blood form; submit a letter to ask for repeat medications; and other simple tasks.

A craving for better management of the admin.

An overstretched, overworked, set of professionals, taken advantage of because of their goodwill and work-ethic. We need to help address the deluge of admin that comes with doing the job. These old workflows lead to a mountain of paperwork, and often, that paperwork needs to be saved online. This duplication of effort is crippling.

How we approach building product is obsessing over the inefficiencies: turn four manual steps in to one. Do that enough times and you start to hand back a significant portion of time to a workforce so desperate for it. Seconds add up.

COVID as a pause for reflection.

One of the few positives to emerge from the past few months is the innovation that happened as a result. Professionals were quick to adopt new technologies in a bid to continue delivering care. These technologies weren't revolutionary by themselves, but they were to the sector: video consultations, digital documents, messaging tools, etc.

This resilience and adaptability gave me confidence for brighter days to come. Healthcare is ready for the change it needs.

Thanks for reading. If you'd like to come find out what it's like on the inside, we are hiring across a number of roles, including Product Design.

Published on

August 10, 2020