Behind Wireframe: Why Is Health Care UX Such a Mess (and How Can Designers Fix It)

Image Credit: Lucas Wakamatsu.
Behind Wireframe: Why Is Health Care UX Such a Mess (and How Can Designers Fix It)

It is, without a doubt, one of the most important services you need to access in your life, and for most of us, we will depend on it when we’re at our most vulnerable: health care. But when it comes to the people we need to help us — the doctors, nurses, and other care providers — what kinds of systems are helping them? As we kick off season two of Wireframe, Adobe’s design podcast produced in partnership with Gimlet Creative, we’re discussing the UX of health care.

“I was prepared for the worst, and it met my expectations,” said Khoi Vinh, Wireframe host and Adobe principal designer. Khoi, along with producer Amy Standen, went to the frontlines of health care UX: the computer systems health care workers interact with in clinics and hospital settings. Listen to the episode to hear what they discovered, and read on for their behind-the-scenes insights into the state of health care UX, why it’s facing such unique problems, and what could be done to fix it to ensure we’re all able to access the health care we deserve.

To improve health care UX, you need to focus on health care providers first

“It’s really difficult to navigate between all the fields that you have to fill out. And it really reduces the quality of communication that I have with the patient.” These were the words of Audrey Provenzano, a primary care worker who lives near Boston, as she described her interactions with the computer systems she relies on to help with patient care. For Khoi, this is a clear case of misaligned priorities; the systems health care providers are using are rarely, if ever, designed specifically to help them provide the best services.

Instead, the tools are designed to meet a complex array of needs, for many stakeholders.

“These systems are ultimately designed for billing purposes and administrative purposes. That’s just the wrong way to think about the system. And that’s why they’re so bad and that’s why they cause so much angst amongst doctors. They should really be designed for doctors and patients, but they are, right now, just about the red tape,” he said.

Often, the tools doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals work with are designed for billing and administrative purposes, not patient care.
Often, the tools doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals work with are designed for billing and administrative purposes, not patient care.

To make matters worse, Amy adds, “health professionals are actually contractually forbidden from speaking out about these electronic health records systems. Those that do comment, on Twitter and elsewhere, are actually putting themselves at risk. How will anything get better if there’s no public pressure from users asking for better products?”

Up close and personal with UX designers creating health care experiences

Khoi and Amy also spoke with Ross Teague, director of user experience at AllScripts, a company that builds medical technology to aid in primary care. “[It’s important to consider] the complexity associated with health care and how much is being required to show up inside of these products,” Ross told them. “How do you balance all those competing requirements without creating a problem for any one part of the system?”

Adobe Principal Designer Khoi Vinh.
Adobe Principal Designer Khoi Vinh hosts Wireframe, Adobe’s design podcast.

Design teams, like the one Ross leads, are caught between a rock and a hard place — designers are the only ones who can solve these UX challenges that primary care providers face, but they also must serve the many different aspects of the complicated health care industry.

The result: tools that are clunky, confusing, and difficult for doctors to use effectively while treating patients.

“It’s no accident that the big consumer products we all use everyday get better and easier to use all the time, while the obscure ones, for example the municipal hurricane warning systems we talked about in Wireframe season one, or health care systems like this, languish in rusty UX purgatory,” said Amy.

“There’s just not much room for innovation and improvement in an industry that’s both cloaked in secrecy and dominated by a few big players.”

While both Khoi and Amy are discouraged by the health care systems they saw during taping of this episode, they are encouraged by the opportunity on the table; there is a chance for designers to make things better.

The elevation of design in health care: Coming soon to a hospital near you?

Dr. Neda Ratanawongsa, the chief medical informatics officer for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, has a vision for her ideal system — one that captures information as patients and doctors talk narratively, with a lot less structure to the data. She, like Dr. Shannon McNamara, also featured in the episode, acknowledges that billing and administrative information needs to be a part of hospital systems — just not at the expense of their ability to provide health care to patients.

“It struck me as really a shame that doctors have to juggle this stuff,” said Khoi. “But I’m optimistic. I think what’s happening with all technology is that expectations for a good user experience are getting greater all the time. There’s more and more exposure to good design out there. This is probably not one that’s going to move as quickly as many others. I think it’s inevitable that in the end good design will actually reach these systems.”

He points to design leaders, like Ross, who want to improve the experiences they’re creating for primary care providers. “Somebody will figure it out, how to deliver a great doctor and patient experience, and also help the billing and administrative team get what they need out of the system,” Khoi said.

“Eventually, the space will get disrupted.”

Behind Wireframe is a blog series taking you behind the scenes of Wireframe, Adobe’s design podcast, hosted by Principal Designer Khoi Vinh. Click here to listen or subscribe to Wireframe, and follow along every week as uncover more 

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