Healthcare News & Insights

4 Principles for designing effective digital health interventions

The COVID-19 pandemic is demonstrating how the delivery and acceptance of digital health care is far more possible than ever perceived. In a matter of months, telemedicine as discussed for years has come to fruition with striking success. 

Health care is traditionally slow to embrace technology and innovation due to a strict regulatory environment and the risk-averse nature of medicine. The adoption of social distancing as an effective means of mitigating the spread of COVID-19 has forced us to accelerate the use of telehealth and think differently about how we give and receive care – not just in directly tackling the pandemic, but also in continuing to address existing healthcare needs through digital health interventions. Whether in a pandemic or not, a person who lives with migraines may still need insights on what triggers episodes and a person who has experienced anxiety or depression still needs support from a mental health professional.

Technology solves problems. Yet when moving rapidly to deliver solutions, we risk creating unintended consequences along the way – from behavioral impact to issues around equity and access. The following four guiding principles can help ensure the industry moves not just quickly, but carefully, when creating new tools for a post-pandemic world.

1. Center on patients

With so many players in the cast of the healthcare system, it’s easy to lose sight of the patient as the leading role. Patients determine where and how they experience care and often what their health outcomes will be. Yet digital healthcare tools are rarely designed to address the holistic needs of a patient beyond a specific intervention, such as the delivery of a treatment or a learning moment like what symptoms may mean.

People bring a host of complex emotions, histories, aspirations and other psychosocial factors to their healthcare experience. We must consider how these factors influence the efficacy of solutions. Is the patient using this device alone, with family or in public? What sort of existing knowledge or technology does a person need to use the solution? Will using the tool make the person feel scared, embarrassed or relieved?

By putting patients at the center of the experience, there’s opportunity to make digital health interventions more empowering, personalized and proactive. In turn, patients are more likely to adopt and appreciate such tools, leading to better health outcomes.

2. Design for inclusion

Inequity is a major risk in the adoption of digital health interventions. As we roll out innovative new practices and tools, who is being left behind? Often, vulnerable populations like the elderly and those experiencing homelessness are the least likely to have access to digital health solutions.

We must plan and design digital offerings or initiatives with the broadest set of users and use cases in mind. How can we design solutions to scale across technologies, from digital solutions like mobile apps to voice recognition technology for those who may be visually impaired? When are solutions most effective as a paper-based or person-to-person intervention?

Designing for extreme cases almost always creates more accessible and useful tools for all patients. The most effective digital offerings and initiatives will be those designed to reach and support the greatest number of people.

3. Balance burden with benefit

Digital healthcare tools designed to help patients manage conditions often require some active engagement – for example, logging environmental factors that may have contributed to a seizure or checking weight daily to monitor congestive heart disease.

While the data can be very valuable from a clinical perspective, tracking this information often puts a significant burden on a patient’s quality of life. As we increasingly recommend digital and telehealth solutions, we must ensure technology eases – rather than exacerbates – this burden. How can insights from patterns in past events help patients make decisions in the moment? Can AI and wearables together help generate insights with less active patient engagement?

With the onset of new digital health interventions, it’s important to ensure we design tools to balance responsibilities with direct, tangible, timely benefits to the patient.

4. Plan for impermanence

A patient’s priority is to live well, not master a tool or process. Despite the many benefits of digital healthcare interventions, sometimes the best health outcome for a patient is to transition off of a tool altogether. When a patient uses digital health solutions to understand or get used to managing their condition, once they meet their goal, they may no longer need the intervention to stay healthy. Alternatively, as with most challenges in life, motivation may ebb and flow, and patients may re-engage with a tool after some time away.

It’s important to design digital health solutions with these transitions in mind and consider how technology can support people throughout their health journey. How can we help people pick up engagement in their care, after time away? How might technology fill data gaps in the time between visits, in ways not possible with in-person care? How can we design tools for different lengths of use and the transitions in between?

Digital interventions have much to offer medicine, but the most successful digital health tools will be those designed with purpose to accompany a patient’s evolving goals and behavior.

Finding opportunity in momentum

The COVID-19 pandemic may have deconstructed the traditional building blocks of care, but there’s great opportunity to rebuild into a more inclusive and resilient system. By centering on the patient, designing for inclusion, balancing burden with benefit, and planning for impermanence, we can continue to expand and improve care experiences and outcomes through digital health solutions.

Author: Matthew Jordan is a partner and head of the healthcare practice at strategy and design firm Artefact.


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