Unlike most technological innovations, which seek to disrupt, tech products in the healthcare industry are designed to improve. Product teams in this space are less concerned about motivating users to purchase their products and more focused on bettering the quality and efficiency of healthcare and how it is delivered. As a result, the healthcare product development process looks and feels different in a number of significant ways.
When it comes to products used in medical settings, the stakes are high. People seeking medical care may approach these products with an elevated stress level, and treatment errors, misuse of medical information, and violations of data privacy can potentially have serious consequences on people’s quality of life.
In order to protect patient safety, products are subject to strict regulations; as such, the pace of development is slower. The sphere of stakeholders expands to include areas such as medical advisory, legal, data privacy, and even medical payers. Expectations and timelines have to be managed differently.
The user relationship with the product itself is also different, with multiple user groups and multiple interaction points. The group interacting with the product at each point may be different, and their needs will change depending on where they are in the healthcare workflow: they may be investigating a medical issue for the first time, for example, or treatment may have already begun.
The products referenced here are those used in and around a patient-doctor interaction, such as software for booking appointments, recording medical notes, or diagnosing conditions. For these types of products, there are two key user groups to consider: the patient seeking care and the person providing it. Each group has unique needs and considerations, and addressing them is both tricky and vital.
With 15 years of experience in healthcare technology, I’ve gleaned some key learnings that I hope will help fellow product managers navigate these user relationships sensibly and sensitively as they develop and launch effective, valuable healthcare products that are used and appreciated by both clinicians and patients.
Clinicians can be skeptical about new products. They may fear that new technology and requirements will hinder rather than enhance their ability to care for patients. A benefits-driven approach is crucial to gaining their buy-in, and teams should make it a priority to communicate early on how the product will provide value, improve patient outcomes, and allow clinicians to provide higher-quality care. This way of working may go against some common Agile development methodologies, where rapid iterations dominate, but a small amount of work up front could allow you to do rapid tests down the line and gain the trust of key stakeholders and subject matter experts.
Understand Real-world Deployment
Enabling healthcare professionals to deliver better care more efficiently requires an intimate understanding of their working circumstances. Consider where the product will fit within the healthcare ecosystem and how it will interact with existing technology or environments. How will your idea lead to a better doctor-patient interaction? If it doesn’t, how can you change it so it does? These questions should be present at every step of development.
If you can, shadow clinicians in their work settings to see the reality of the environment and the associated pain points. During a recent user interaction, I noticed that three monitors were needed to accommodate the existing software used in a medical office: diagnostic tools, electronic medical records, and imaging software. My goals became to display this information in a more meaningful way and to streamline that view. We ultimately employed a series of widgets and pop-up boxes that enabled users to hide information they needed less frequently but access it quickly when it was required. This simple alteration completely changed the clinician experience, allowing them greater flexibility in their workspace and leading to more efficient patient care. By making it easier and faster for clinicians to complete administrative tasks, we freed up time for them to devote to patient interactions.
Recruit a Clinical Champion
Clinicians are experts and are trained to be decision-makers, so you may encounter more resistance or hesitancy from them if you do not have the appropriate clinical viewpoint. A clinician who will advocate for your product will carry weight and help bring others on board. A clinical champion can translate the work of your team in a way that is meaningful to their peers, while also providing an ongoing clinical perspective during product development. Often, you can find someone on the clinical team who is especially interested in technology and innovation. Recruit them to serve as a liaison to other test users. Alternatively, seek out former clinicians within your product organization who could bridge the gap between your product team and potential users.
Be Strategic With Clinicians’ Time
When it comes to conducting user research, remember that clinicians are generally on fixed schedules and will be taking time away from patients to work with you. Build in extra flexibility around interviews and know that you may have less time than planned with each participant. To extract the maximum value from every interaction, have a clear idea of the questions you want answered and present information concisely. Include only what is clinically relevant and necessary for that particular stage of the interaction.
User testing will also require more forethought and planning. Because clinicians cannot be in a state where they can’t perform their role, you may need to allow them to test a new system alongside an old one in case anything goes wrong. For example, when recording notes into an electronic medical record, they may need the existing system available in case issues with the new one arise. If this is not possible, make sure you provide a fallback method for them to carry out their clinical duties, even if that means taking notes with paper and pencil.
Post-launch, adoption of the product must create minimal burden. Product managers should utilize their best practices as they would for any other change management, but training techniques will need to be adapted for the environment. Consider how training sessions slot into clinicians’ workdays. Will using a new product initially slow down patient interactions? Can rollout be conducted in groups or teams? Dedicate time and resources to thinking through these and other environment-specific operational questions; the physicians and patients will thank you for it and will be more likely to work with you again.
As healthcare advances, patients are having more and more interactions with digital products. Some of their treatment pathways may now take place digitally; for example, through an app that provides text-based coaching, through telemedicine, or perhaps with the help of an informational bot. Because products now have more of an impact on the care experience, it’s increasingly important that they facilitate the kind of patient-centric care that is provided in a physical setting and associated with positive outcomes.
Patients are generally less averse to technological change than clinicians, with new products often providing them greater autonomy over their healthcare. Technology has enabled patients to be more informed about, and have more control over, their options and outcomes than ever before. They do, however, still demand a different approach than the average user group.
Create a Positive Experience
My work in healthcare software product development has made me hyper-aware of the positive and negative aspects of the care experience when I am in the position of being a patient. Patient interactions with healthcare products are often born of necessity rather than choice, and so their user experience can be treated as an afterthought.
To avoid compromising on user experience, stay focused on how the technology you’re creating can better personalize, streamline, and deliver the information and care that patients receive. Can patients utilize a chatbot to receive information from your database about medication? Can they prepopulate their latest visit with their saved insurance information? Can they complete forms before entering an office? Even simple features can improve the patient experience.
Patients often enter the care equation in a state of high stress and urgency. Even those whose needs may not seem pressing should be guaranteed a smooth and easy entry into the care process. Someone may only be seeking advice or treatment for mild cold symptoms, for example, but these symptoms may prohibit them from going to work. They need and want a quick and seamless way to access the information or service they require. Eliminate steps whenever possible and make actions small and simple. For example, if a waiver is needed, host the form in a scroll box on the same page as the rest of the patient information entry so users don’t have to navigate to another page in order to sign it.
Product managers should also be thoughtful about the language products use. Clinical information, such as the risks involved in having an X-ray, should be presented in terms the patient can understand and should not be intimidating. Use compassion here; you want to ensure patients are fully informed but not scared.
Give Reassurance Around Data Security
Privacy is a huge concern for all users in this sector, but for patients, health data represents the highest level of personal investment and risk. These concerns can present hurdles for development and adoption, and if you are unable to provide a good assurance of safety and privacy, the success of your product is at risk.
Levels of comfort around sharing private health information vary depending on a patient’s age, region, and situation. I have worked with patient groups in the US, EMEA, and emerging markets, and their responses to the idea of digitized medical information were all different. A patient may trust their doctor but might not want to share any private information with an employer-sponsored product out of fear that their employer will have access to that information. Some people may not feel comfortable sharing their cell phone numbers. Ultimately, they might resist sharing data that could be critical to their care.
Teams should think about patients’ boundaries around sharing data when designing the user flow. Consider why and how you are asking for information. Be sensitive to the patient when information is requested, even if a clinician has told you it is critical to collect. Provide reassurance that information is collected only for meaningful use. If a product can deliver an assurance that it leads to better and more timely care, patients will be more likely to engage with it.
Gain Consent During User Testing
Gaining consent from patients is essential when it comes to testing medical products, and it’s important to remember that patients can be involved in user testing in a number of capacities. Their presence may be required even when testing products for clinicians, in order for the product team to observe the clinical interaction. Similarly, clinician involvement will likely need to be coordinated for user testing with patients. This can slow the process, so be sure to allot time accordingly. The same applies to patient-facing products that would not require clinician involvement for real-world use, as products may require clinical supervision during testing to ensure patient safety.
Product managers also need to be aware of context when they interpret feedback. Patients are accustomed to interactions being difficult and to products not being user-friendly. They may have a low standard for the quality of their experience, so any small improvement will be met with positivity.
Satisfying and Supporting Both Groups
The intersection of medicine and technology is a unique juncture, where stakes are exponentially higher and there is little room for error. It is all the more important, therefore, to approach this space with a laser focus on end users. It is crucial to balance the needs of the clinician with the needs of the patient in order to develop an end product that works for and supports both contingents. The job of a product manager in this sector is to find that balance, identifying where compromises can be made and where making them could be detrimental to the clinical experience or to patient safety.
While these guidelines should help product managers traverse this complex terrain, unexpected roadblocks and challenges will inevitably arise along the course of product development. Understanding and empathizing with the specific needs of these two user groups, though, will help smooth the path.
Further Reading on the Toptal Product Blog:
- Expert Designers Leading Healthcare Product Innovation
- The 3 Essential Elements of a Streamlined Product Strategy
- Own Your Health: The State of Connected Medical Devices
- Three Healthcare Technology Innovations: Driving Better Outcomes and Lower Costs
- Building a Remote Product Development Strategy for Success
Understanding the basics
Healthcare products can help deliver quality, personalized care that is more easily accessible and more efficient. Healthcare products are high stakes—errors, misuse, and violations of data privacy can have potentially serious consequences for people’s quality of life.
Clinicians want products that will enable them to deliver better patient care. They are on fixed schedules and need the product process to be flexible and create minimal burden. Patients want products that will make it easier for them to access information and treatment, and provide greater control over their care. They need products to deliver a positive, smooth experience.
Having an in-depth understanding of user needs is vital in successfully involving clinicians and patients in the development process and in launching products that are valuable, safe, and effective.