How the Health Industry Can Move Toward More Human-Centric Innovation

Originally published on

Some of the best and brightest minds are working in the health realm right now. Many of them have had a personal experience where their lives were impacted by a personal or family health situation and this lead them to experience the health system first hand.

The pain, confusion, fear, and anxiety of trying to navigate a very disparate ecosystem in an effort to feel better, stay alive, or help a loved one to heal can be both eye-opening and overwhelming. From struggling to understand a health insurance plan, to becoming expert on the nuances of a condition and deciding upon the optimal care pathway, to working with clinicians who are facing increasing levels of burnout, to managing the logistics associated with appointments, medications, and bills, to feeling powerless. It would appear as though the people interacting with the health system are there to serve the system, as opposed to the system being there to serve them and they are often not invited to the table to participate in its improvement. The challenges can seem insurmountable. However, these experiences have formed a burning desire within many in the health system to heal the system, to make things better, so that people will not have to experience what they have experienced.

The passion and drive of those working in health is leading to disruption and innovation across the industry and that level of innovation is needed because the direction we are heading in is not sustainable. The quality of experience that we deliver to patients, families, and clinicians is not reaching the level of quality that we know is possible considering our human capacity to care, to connect, and to innovate. Patients need to be engaged in their care and the system needs to coordinate that care in order to achieve better outcomes.

However, as we are racing to improve the situation for patients the issues we face are simultaneously growing. The United States is still ranked 1st in terms of cost and 17th in terms of outcomes and medical costs are still the number one reason for bankruptcy. The chronic stress, sedentary behavior and the Standard American Diet (SAD), that define the American lifestyle, are making us sicker and sicker, increasing the incidence of chronic disease, the need for services and associated financial implications.

New legislation has stimulated organizations to point their efforts in the direction of creating a system that creates health as opposed to one focused on dealing reactively to sickness. Health organizations are waking up to the fact that it is an experience economy. Consumers make decisions around who to business with based upon the relationship they have with the organization and the perceived benefits of that relationship. This calls health organizations to move beyond selling products and services or enabling customers to complete self-service transactions easily and to be there for consumers when they need them most.

We are seeing health organizations adjust the boundaries that have typically defined their businesses and look at becoming a partner in health to the people they serve. Health systems are looking to extend care outside the four walls of the hospitals, providing tools to help people to care for themselves and connect with clinicians digitally. Insurance companies are looking to create programs and services that help their members achieve better health. Pharmaceutical companies are exploring how digital therapies can work independently or alongside drugs to deliver better outcomes.

There are many hurdles that health organizations can face in answering the call to effective innovation practice, which typically calls for organizations to embrace risk, and that valuable insight can be gained from failure. But, health organizations are risk averse and for good reason as they are tasked with effectively providing for quality and safety and doing so is no light matter. Although collaboration is an essential in the innovation process, many organizations have silos within themselves, each of which work on factors that affect the patient experience as well as how to manifest the ultimate purpose of the organization through the work they do. These groups are not always set up to collaborate and combine efforts to improve the experience in a truly transformational way.

Health organizations can suffer from “shiny object syndrome”, interpreting innovation as adopting the latest piece of hardware or software to hit the market, convinced that the tool, the technology will deliver the results we seek without a sense for the context within which they will need to function. Tools and emerging technology should support our efforts, but should not be our focus. A decided focus on all of the experiences which shape the patient’s journey across the ecosystem of interaction including how relationships and conversations are improved through better connection, and how confidence and competence are improved through the right people having the right information at the right time are all required.

The system can tend to be demanding and autocratic in nature, wanting patients to “adhere” or in other words “be obedient” to the course of care recommended by the system and in many cases financially incenting or penalizing the behaviors the system is after. Penalties and rewards may stimulate behavior change in the short-term but are often not sustainable and do not needing to lasting change. Programs are often deployed without consideration for social determinants of health, life factors that may be contributing to what is happening with the patient and the intrinsic motivation that will need to be sparked in order to address those factors. A more comprehensive and realistic view of the patient’s challenges and desires as well as a more humanistic approach will support the creation of services that get people connected to the tools and resources that will support them, ultimately helping them to achieve the positive long-term outcomes they desire.

A commitment to strategically delivering value to stakeholders and improving the experiences that an organization delivers necessitates a fresh look at methods and approaches for solving the problems we face and the opportunities in front of us. Human-centered design is a promising model for innovation that can get us from where we are to where we want to be. The methodology involves the people who will be affected by the solutions we are creating in the process of creating them so that we can create solutions that truly serve them. Organizations inside and outside of health are recognizing the importance of design. The Design Management Institute has launched a Design Value Index which scorecards publicly traded companies in terms of their enacted commitment to design and found that those who have an enacted organizational commitment to design outperform those on the stock market who do not by a dramatic measure of 228% in the 2014 survey.

Organizations can move toward integrating design thinking and human centered design in their innovation process and look for opportunities to coordinate this method with other methods like Lean Six Sigma, Total Quality Management (TQM), clinical trial process, scientific method and other processes may be relied upon in a given organization. Key tenets of human-centered design include collaboration with internal and external stakeholders, idea generation and creative process, and concept validation through early testing ongoing iteration and refinement.

Empathy is core to the philosophy and function of human-centered design and can be our guide in driving the change we want to see. There are two types of empathy, cognitive empathy, which involves viewing things from the perspective of someone else and exploring how the solution may meet their needs, and emotional empathy which involves actually feeling for the person and desiring to improve their situation.

Both types of empathy are required to create innovations, which truly meet people’s needs. Enhanced cognitive understanding of people’s needs shapes the solutions we deliver, making them more targeted and meaningful. Enhanced emotional understanding will inspire the intuition, creativity, and motivation necessary to break walls of complacency and complexity, prioritize initiatives and push them forward.

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By: Amy Cueva

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