Using empathy to strengthen influence with patients

Peter Borden, Sapient Healthcare

Peter Borden, Sapient Healthcare

As digital technologies integrate into the everyday lives of patients and doctors, healthcare has an unprecedented opportunity to improve patient outcomes and overall healthcare experiences. As the burden of healthcare shifts more and more to the patient and more conditions become chronic, solid digital and experience strategies are essential to creating more impactful tools that allow patients to better manage their personal care responsibilities.  Unfortunately, the current approach of digital health solution providers focuses on functionality instead of health and patient needs. The lack of empathy with users prevents the necessary connection to optimise impact. It’s the missing vital sign in creating meaningful care solutions. As health providers accept the new challenge of integrating digital tools into healthcare, they must also accept empathy as a vital sign they can no longer ignore.

Rebecca Pineault, SapientNitro

Rebecca Pineault, SapientNitro

It’s encouraging that the health industry is talking about patient-centric, consumer-centric approaches and design thinking. The concepts were mentioned regularly at the recent 2016 HIMSS Conference, but talk is cheap. Current solutions focus on tactical features that are poorly targeted and insufficiently relevant to users. In short, they aren’t likely to drastically improve care experiences or outcomes. Refocusing efforts on better understanding patients and their needs can fuel designs that are more deeply engaging, leading to more satisfying care experiences, better health outcomes, and lower overall health costs.

Developing digital solutions to improve health requires a balance of art and science. The healthcare industry is rooted primarily in science and medicine, relying on objectivity, facts, and evidence, but our human experience of the world requires thoughts, feelings, and interactions.  And humans are often predictably irrational, even when their own lives are at stake. The devastating effects of sun exposure are well documented and widely known, yet tanning beds are still in use and sunbathers continue to bask without sunscreen. Simply mapping a journey through the health system based on treating a symptom or alleviating a condition isn’t enough. Using empathy to see digital solutions from the perspective of those who will use them allows developers and designers to consider motivation, as well as ability, and provide opportunities for engagement that increase the odds of adoption and habituation.

Including empathy in your strategy and design thinking is critical; it’s the art that provides context and colour to a patient’s experience. Empathy is the necessary work of understanding your target audience — how they do things and why, their physical and emotional needs, how they relate to the world and what’s meaningful to them — all within the context of the solution you’re trying to provide. Empathy leads to designs that capitalise on engagement opportunities and forge deeper connections with users. In the case of healthcare providers, an empathic design approach helps them connect with patients, not in a sterile, clinical environment, but where they are more comfortable and receptive to engagement. This engagement is the basis for a relationship that can influence patients’ experiences and outcomes. It allows providers from across the health industry to integrate into patients’ everyday lives and increase their overall influence on behaviour.

The process of creating these engaging moments with patients must be holistic and strategic. Simply implementing a few tactics that address discreet needs, for example BMI calculators, dashboards and wayfinding might be a step in the right direction, but the return on a tactical investment can pay off at a higher rate if based on empathy and strategically implemented to increase its impact. These incremental engagements feed each other and strengthen relationships through interaction and by creating contextual relevance. Other tactics can be layered into a program that reduces friction with the experience which is necessary for sustained engagement and is sticky, possibly driving increased lifetime value. The end result allows for experiences that drive behaviour change, which is critical to better influence health outcomes.

The entire healthcare industry is driven to improve patient experiences and outcomes. Patients are taking greater responsibility for their own health than ever before. Digital platforms have evolved to integrate into every facet of patients’ lives, including their capacity to capture highly-contextual information about people’s motivations and life experiences, as well as their presence at the moment of action. These movements point to a convergence of circumstances that offer digital health solution providers unprecedented opportunity to change lives in a fundamental way. Developing holistic engagement strategies is the key to influence, and empathy is the heartbeat of those solutions – a vital sign that cannot be ignored.

By Peter Borden and Rebecca Pineault, from Sapient Healthcare and SapientNitro (respectively)

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