The Importance of Humanizing Healthcare Technology 

We can do better.

By way of online education-based resources and smartphone healthcare applications, technology has come a long way in enabling patients to take better control of their own healthcare. Today, consumers have nearly as much raw information available at their fingertips as physicians have in medical school, for example this open courseware from Tufts School of Medicine. This all sounds well and good, especially since informed and educated patients directly lead to better health outcomes. This is especially true for chronic and complex conditions.

Technology has seriously upped the ante when it comes to enabling patients to be informed and educated about their health. There are more than 70,000 websites that disseminate health information. As exciting as this may sound, access to the general public is often hindered by design issues (poor navigation, writing at graduate level, and disorganization) and questionable quality and accuracy of information.

How will the accessibility of information affect patient care long-term?

As the lead UX researcher for a healthcare application I spend much of my time trying to answer this question. I’ve been spending quite a bit of time with these apps. Prior to joining SAP, I studied clinical psychology and spent a few years interning at several healthcare facilities as part of my doctoral program. One thing that that always struck me was the direct relationship between positive health outcomes and strong patient-provider relationships. For example, the biggest predictor of success in mental health therapy is not the treatment modality, the US News and World Reports Ranking of the school the provider attended, nor the length of sessions. The biggest predictor of successful therapy is the relationship between the mental health provider and the patient. This doesn’t only apply to therapy, studies show that one of the biggest predictors of whether or not a doctor will be sued by a patient for malpractice is how much they like their doctor.

How can the use of technology enable and strengthen patient-doctor relationships and connectedness?

The American College of Physicians (ACP) frowns upon physicians communicating with patients through the same channels patients and doctors are using to communicate socially (such as Twitter and Facebook). The American Psychological Association (APA) questions psychologists’ communication with patients via social media outside of the 50-minute therapy hour, as it may compromise the code of ethics. These antiquated guidelines are not keeping up with the way the average American communicates in 2014.

Improving integration between how doctors communicate via technology can improve the relationship with patients and ultimately health delivery.

I’d love to see some of the ACP and APA restrictions lifted or tailored to the 21st century, but what can app/software designers do in the meantime? How can we design our applications so that the patient doctor relationship is strengthened without having the physician directly communicate with the patient via the app? A need for improved communication clearly exists, and healthcare is holding itself back by not responding to, and underutilizing, new ways of communication. It’s a challenging design question. I won’ be tweeting my skincare status to my dermatologist anytime soon, but I do wonder if we can find a happy, safe, and secure medium (no pun intended) through which patients and physicians can communicate and build a relationship effectively.

How can we do a better job of facilitating relationships between doctors and patients without directly communicating with the doctor? Tell me here or drop me a line at @elisaheiken