MedCity Influencers, Health Tech

Product Innovation: Why End Users Can’t Be Afterthoughts in 2023

To drive adoption, digital health solutions must solve real user problems, which means users cannot be an afterthought in developing these solutions. But it’s also important to recognize that end users aren’t the only group whose needs matter. Workable, scalable digital health solutions must also clear the hurdles of technical feasibility and business viability.

McKinsey estimates that digital health solutions could cut global healthcare costs by $3 trillion per year by 2030. But we’ll only hit that number if people actually use the digital health solutions we build – that is, if physicians prescribe them and patients use them as prescribed.

That means digital health innovators must take end-user needs into account from the very beginning. Unfortunately, most are not yet doing that. In fact, that was one of the things that struck me most at 2022’s HLTH conference in November: for far too many innovators present, end users were an afterthought.

Here’s a look at why that won’t work if we’re hoping to meaningfully improve healthcare outcomes in 2023 and beyond – and how innovators can make sure they’re considering users from the start to realize better adoption after launch.

Better outcomes start with adoption. Adoption happens when we solve user problems

Just as blood pressure medication only works when patients take it, digital health solutions only work when people use them as prescribed.

And while the challenge in improving outcomes for oral medication is mostly on the patient adherence side, the hurdle for new digital health solutions is one of adoption for both the physicians who would prescribe the solution and the patients who would use it.

In other words, if you want to encourage doctors to start writing prescriptions for an app and you want their patients to actually use that app, you’d better make sure the app solves a real problem both groups have. Otherwise, it’s just one more platform they’re paying for (but not actually using).

So how do you identify the problems you can solve? It starts with user research.

To identify the “right” problem, talk to patients and physicians

The basic premise of user research is simple: talk to the people you want to help throughout the process of creating a digital health solution, and you’ll end up with a solution that meets their needs and that they’re excited to use.

But as soon as you get into a real-life example, complexities emerge. You may realize that the best problem to solve is only tangentially related to the health outcome you’re hoping to achieve – and that’s okay, if solving the problem does, in fact, help you reach that desired health outcome.

For example, a healthcare device company that makes a wearable bone stimulator that helps the healing process after spinal surgery wanted to improve adherence. Patients who wear the device the most over nine months of recovery have the best outcomes, but because they can’t feel how the device helps them, adherence tends to be fluctuate.

The makers suspected that a companion app could help adherence, but they weren’t sure how it would work. After speaking to patients, these key problems were identified:

  • In post-surgery check-ins, patients’ reports of their pain weren’t reliable. Patients relied entirely on memory, which made it hard to determine if their pain was improving over time.
  • Because they lacked reliable data about both pain and patient adherence to post-surgery protocols (including wearing the device and getting regular activity), surgeons had a difficult time making treatment recommendations.
  • Patients often misunderstood how wearing the bone stimulator device impacted their long-term recovery, which led to lower adherence over time.

Ultimately,  an app was built that imports data from the device (which includes activity tracking). In addition to plotting device usage and activity, the app prompts users to track their pain levels every day.

The result: patients can see their pain trend down as they adhere to post-surgery protocols, which inspires behavioral change and ongoing adherence. Surgeons can accurately assess adherence and more confidently make treatment recommendations. And because the companion app improves patient adherence to the wearable device, which improves overall outcomes, surgeons are more likely to prescribe that device than a competitor’s that lacks the companion app.

To be clear: the app itself does not have any primary health benefits. But in solving other problems related to the health issue in question, it motivates behavior that leads to better outcomes.

Digital health solutions must demonstrate value to both patients and physicians

To drive adoption, digital health solutions must solve real user problems, which means users cannot be an afterthought in developing these solutions. But it’s also important to recognize that end users aren’t the only group whose needs matter. Workable, scalable digital health solutions must also clear the hurdles of technical feasibility and business viability.

Admittedly, that’s a lot to juggle. That’s why I’m such a big fan of product innovation, which is a value system that balances all those needs. Embracing the mindsets and behaviors that define product innovation will give the industry’s innovators their best possible chance at achieving better health outcomes at scale.

Rex Chekal is the Principal Product Designer at TXI, a product innovation firm that delivers engaging experiences and custom software. Within the healthcare, retail, manufacturing, and education sectors, TXI partners with clients from startups to Fortune 100s to fuel growth by giving users the digital products they want to use.

This post appears through the MedCity Influencers program. Anyone can publish their perspective on business and innovation in healthcare on MedCity News through MedCity Influencers. Click here to find out how.

Topics