Should medical product design focus on the illness or the patient?

 In Medical Product Design

Digital health is booming thanks to technological innovation. By using data analytics and mobile technology, medical companies are providing exciting new opportunities for consumers to track their health statistics, consult experts and learn more about their conditions in a convenient and user-friendly way. Last year, iMedical Apps reported that there are over 165,000 digital health apps available. This number continues to grow rapidly. These tools cover everything from fitness tracking to heart rate monitoring and doctor-patient communication. 

There is also a growing need for these solutions. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately a quarter of the U.S. population is dealing with multiple chronic ailments, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer and arthritis. While those with multiple chronic conditions (or MCCs) stands to benefit from the growing number of digital health products, they would benefit a great deal more if designers focused on the patients instead of their illnesses. 

"Patient engagement should be a primary concern during the medical product design process."

Learn user behavior
In order to design breakthrough medical products for patients suffering from chronic illnesses, you first need to understand the people and why you're designing for them. Extensive user research shows how people behave, how they interact and why they do these things. User feelings and motivations can affect how they use their digital health tools. Patient engagement should be a primary concern during the medical product design process, because a treatment that doesn't work for the individual end user doesn't work well at all. 

A person doesn't use medical products in a vacuum. This use can develop and change over time, due to many possible factors, both direct and indirect. This is known as the user journey, and it defines a person's relationship with a product through its full life cycle. 

What do you want the user to do?
Participation is critical to engagement. Without designing for a specific participation, it's really just taking a shot in the dark. For instance, if a patient is motivated to eat a healthier diet, then the design team should focus on the many steps a person can take each day to make better dietary choices. 

Understanding patient behaviors will also help you develop triggers, which prompt the user to perform an action. Triggers could be anything from "check your heart rate" to "eat a healthy snack". Triggers can be both external – like a push notification, or internal – like a user's memories. Understanding a patient's needs and motivations, while experimenting with different triggers, will help to create new medical products that work for their users. 

Ease the patient's burden, don't add to it
For a patient with multiple chronic illnesses, there are numerous digital tools that can help his or her everyday life. But managing every one of these apps or other digital products can become a burden unto itself, adding to the already large challenge of dealing with the symptoms of multiple diseases while seeing a team of different doctors and taking any number of prescription drugs.

There are so many narrowly-focused apps and devices that treat only niche problems, which can be overwhelming for anyone. Many designers overlook the need for a broader approach of helping the user manage more than just one specialized, fragmented part of his or her health. A product that incorporates this wider view stands to take advantage of a tremendous market opportunity. 

"A product that shares or syncs data with other tools can also help to personalize treatment for each patient."

Medical design teams don't need to address every possible ailment when designing their solutions, but developing digital health solutions that enable collaboration and integration can ease a patient's burden by making it easier to juggle multiple digital health products. A digital health product that shares or syncs data with other tools can also help personalize treatment for each patient, which in turn provides a better experience, particularly for those dealing with multiple chronic conditions. 

Design for the person, not the ailment
Leonard Kish of Health Standards has called patient engagement "the blockbuster drug of the century." He cited a 2009 cardiac study by Kaiser Permanente that showed patients who were more engaged in their treatments fared much better, thanks to the education, communication and personalized care they received when they were actually treated as individuals by a cross-functional medical staff.

A paper from the National Center for Biotechnology Information notes that the application of behavioral science at the design stage can help improve patient engagement in digital health apps. These improvements are expected to lead to more intuitive healthcare technology that will improve outcomes. 

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