Why Design Is the New Killer App for Healthcare Organizations



Healthcare is complex. Patients and customers have to navigate hard to understand systems under frequently stressful circumstances. And because providers, insurance companies, and other health brands direct their attention chiefly to top-line issues — often to the exclusion of optimizing minor touchpoints — the overall patient experience ends up muddled, inconsistent, unappealing, and unfriendly.

The problem stems from a lack of attention to the details that coalesce into a brand and patient experience. Healthcare organizations, by and large, have three primary focuses. The first, unsurprisingly, is efficacy. Treating illness and getting patients healthy is always a top goal.

“Healthcare brands must constantly balance the sometimes competing interests of patients, providers, hospital systems, insurance companies, and regulators.”

The second is regulatory compliance. The rules for operating and marketing in the health industry are abstruse and ever-changing, requiring constant oversight. Third, they often focus on risk management. The downsides for failing to control risk in many other industries are significantly lower. When Pepsi’s latest product launch underperforms, no one is likely to physically suffer. When healthcare providers fall short, real lives are at stake.

Given those vital focuses taking up most of their mental bandwidth, it’s understandable that the C-suite for healthcare brands sometimes let the brand experience fall by the wayside — but it’s not excusable. Despite the added complexities of healthcare, their brands are subject to the same market forces as all others. Failure to adapt to changing consumer behaviors and expectations will relegate them just as surely to stagnation.

Healthcare may have a narrower focus than other industries, but unlike less complex market sectors, it has more than just two or three primary stakeholders. This isn’t a simple relationship between buyers and sellers. Healthcare brands must constantly balance the sometimes competing interests of patients, providers, hospital systems, insurance companies, and regulators.

That’s a lot of moving parts and too many opportunities for wires to get crossed, information to get siloed, and patients to get lost in the shuffle while attempting to navigate a bureaucratic mess. Not exactly what you’d call a sterling brand experience.

Digital Tools Revolutionize the Patient Experience

The overall picture in healthcare may be intricate and fluid, but the patient perspective is simpler: they want the best possible experience and outcome at the lowest possible cost. Brand managers don’t control quality of care and have very limited input on pricing, but directly shape and optimize the experience in healthcare.

The total patient experience — and the total brand experience, for that matter — is the sum of hundreds or even thousands of minor touchpoints:

  • Websites
  • Apps
  • Inpatient and outpatient visits
  • Phone trees
  • Campus signage
  • Wayfinding systems
  • Print collateral
  • Preventive care
  • Marketing and social media
  • Educational media

And make no mistake, the values of a positive brand experience (e.g. memorability, lasting bonds, positioning in the customer’s mindset, positive affiliations, etc.) are all equally effective in the healthcare marketplace. A 2021 study reported that health systems with high experience scores saw average revenue increase by $444 per adjusted patient.

Years of 24/7, on-demand ecommerce delivered by Amazon and Apple have spoiled consumers. They want that same kind of treatment from healthcare. That means:

  • Communicating in plain English
  • Keeping patients in the loop
  • Being responsive to feedback
  • Tailoring the experience to individuals
  • Adding more self-selection tools for patients

“Health systems with high patient experience scores saw average revenue increase by $444 per adjusted patient.”

Healthcare brand managers benefited from years where patients were slow to change providers. Formerly, patients had limited options, chose their health brands early, and then stuck with them. Those days are dwindling. Younger consumers, in particular, are infamously less loyal to brands and are inclined to switch to try out something that looks better.

Design a Better Way

Investing in design, in general, is proven to correlate positively with growth. McKinsey’s Business Value of Design studied 300 companies working in the medical technologies, consumer products, and retail banking industries to develop the McKinsey Design Index (MDI), which scores companies based on their effective use of design in products, services, and experiences. Companies with an MDI in the top 25-percent grew their value at twice the rate of their competitors over a five-year period.

Tools for learning about your patients:

  • Immersive interviews
  • Co-creation sessions
  • Take a diverse sample (age, condition, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.)
  • Voluntary data sharing

The goals in healthcare also differ from many other industries; success is often measured in time saved, not spent. No one likes going to the dentist. What they like is leaving the dentist with a clean, bright, healthy smile after a quick and painless visit. Hence, a primary goal for all healthcare providers in the digital era should be reducing friction and uncertainty from the patient journey.

“Companies that most effectively used design grew their value at twice the rate of their competitors over a five-year period.”

The Design Institute for Health, which was founded in 2015 as a joint project by the University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School and the College of Fine Arts, is a unique, cross-disciplinary attempt to quantify and study the impact of design in healthcare.

“People forget that healthcare is a hospitality industry; they get wrapped up in the clinical delivery aspect of it,” said Lucas Artusi, a Systems Designer at the institute. “But it’s helpful to look at what hotels do, not just in terms of the physical space, but the services.”

“Data shows that 80-90% of your health is dictated by things outside the four walls of a healthcare clinic,” Artusi added. “So, we’re trying to strengthen and reinforce the connection between people’s day-to-day activities and their overall well-being.”

Healthcare brands are wise to steal these lessons from ecommerce and hospitality, but should take care to remember that there is a limit for how casual patients want their relationship with a healthcare provider to be, and it’s not the same as with Amazon.

“People forget that healthcare is a hospitality industry; they get wrapped up in the clinical delivery aspect of it.”

Communications or tools that appear gimmicky, overzealous, or like they are trying to hide more serious news, will decrease trust and be tuned out by patients. Keep the tone upbeat and informal, but still clinical and professional.

Every Healthcare Journey is Personal

Above all else, it’s critical for healthcare brands to remember there are actual people on the other end of their touchpoints. People with unique needs, challenges, and preferences.

Design is the perfect tool for reaching patients and forming lasting bonds with them because it is empathic in nature. Designers take pains to understand who they are designing for, how to bridge gaps in their competencies and capabilities with inclusive features, and what kind of communications are most likely to hit home with their audience.

That’s why the fastest growing healthcare brands today are all using a people-focused, design-centric approach to make real and lasting patient connections.