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4 things every healthcare leader should know about human-centered design in healthcare

My father was paralyzed by the time I was four. Back then, there wasn’t a treatment for multiple sclerosis, only medicine to alleviate his symptoms. He had to take as many as 30 different medications and vitamins daily. My family focused on managing every element of my father’s health—physical therapy (twice a day), nutrition, and giving him an environment in which he could thrive.  

But when we had to contact a doctor’s office or hospital, frustration would set in. I was always astounded that staff didn’t understand the care experience outside of their immediate roles. They’d direct us elsewhere, often to dead ends, and inevitably we’d have to call back for additional support. This “experiential blindness” is common in healthcare and can leave patients unsure about their treatment plans. Patients who know what the experience is—and the next steps to take—have better health outcomes and are more satisfied. When teams and leaders don’t invest time and resources into designing the patient and workforce experience, inconsistent outcomes and detrimental effects occur. 

Taking a human-centered approach to designing the patient and workforce experience is crucial for providing better care and improving workflows. Human-centered design in healthcare invokes the human perspective throughout the decision-making processes. Put simply, leaders must view care through the lens of their patients and staff, consider how innovative changes can impact experience at different levels, and support behaviors that benefit everyone.  

1. Understanding human behavior is vital to human-centered design in healthcare

A common misconception is that asking people what they want is sufficient for understanding their needs. But this approach doesn’t paint a full picture of human behavior or the consumer experience.  

In healthcare, we see this happen time and time again. The stress and anxiety about an appointment or health issue can prevent patients from asking the right questions and retaining information. That’s why clinicians must align health assessments with each patient’s experience. For example, you might prompt patients to write down three questions prior to the appointment to ease some of the pressure of being put on the spot. 

You can begin understanding people’s needs by observing their behaviors. I saw this firsthand during my tenure at one institution where I worked to improve health literacy—i.e., the degree to which patients can obtain, process, understand, and use health information—of people with diabetes.  

One patient was upset the doctor labeled her “non-adherent to treatment” in her patient record. For a year she tried to control her blood sugar by following the prescribed diet and exercise. But it didn’t seem to work, and her doctor kept increasing her insulin during each clinical visit. It was only when a friend—also a diabetic—asked the patient to demonstrate how she draws insulin that the problem revealed itself: Rather than holding the insulin vial and needle vertically, the patient held them horizontally, preventing the full dose of insulin from being administered.

Disconnects like this aren’t uncommon. Without confirming a patient understands directions through activity or demonstration, their health literacy can remain low. Experience and dialogue are key to rooting out an issue. Human-centered design in healthcare can help shift healthcare provider perspectives and create space for new insights to develop. 

2. Healthcare leaders need to step into their patients' shoes 

At the same institution, an initial analysis of patient satisfaction data revealed that components of the care experience itself led to lower health literacy and decreased patients’ abilities to care for themselves independent of clinical assistance.  

To better understand the issues involved, my team asked each leader to “become” a person with diabetes, their caregiver, or physician for a week. We built stakeholder profiles from patient data and simulated experiences where they had to adhere to regimented meals, medication (some injected saline or ate jellybeans as pills, for example), and exercise.  

This simulation gave leaders firsthand experience and empathy needed to understand just how difficult it is to calculate calories, give themselves injections, and document exercise routines. Some even noticed how drastically the stress from this experiment impacted their physical health and blood sugar levels. One thing became overwhelmingly clear: It was impossible for diabetic patients to effectively care for themselves under current treatment guidelines. Things had to change. 

3. Decision-making requires weighing how innovations may affect experience  

Designing exceptional experiences requires that healthcare leaders and providers understand how the solutions they implement will advance their organization’s goals and affect the daily patient and employee experience. Otherwise, improvement efforts can have unintended consequences.  

Take telehealth, for example. Switching to virtual platforms hasn’t alleviated many of patients’ main appointment-related challenges—like understanding treatment plans and adhering to recommendations. At the same time, it’s put a greater burden on providers’ shoulders: There’s more paperwork to do, and the “always-on” nature of digital technology means providers are expected to respond to patients more quickly. The “phygital" (hybrid physical and digital) experience needs to both address patient needs and streamline clinician operations to be sustainable. While the high-level goals are worth pursuing, the on-the-ground implications need to be worked out first for a telemedicine implementation to be successful.  

4. Designing for experience requires a human-centered culture 

A human-centered culture is the backbone of human-centered design in healthcare. Employees at every level must stay curious, be empowered to question the status quo, and have the space to pilot and test ideas—while viewing failure as progress, not defeat. Staff members are the best resource for understanding the on-the-ground patient experience. Turning their feedback into tangible changes shows them their voices matter. Then updating team members as their ideas become practice keeps them invested and engaged—and builds positive momentum to accelerate further PX improvements. 

Consciously supporting a culture shift to put the human experience first drives higher engagement among staff as well as a better PX. This process must be collaborative and encourage a free-flowing exchange of ideas that opens space for new and creative solutions. 

Understanding staff and patient behavior demands firsthand experience and an environment that encourages curiosity. Leveraging human-centered design methods in healthcare helps drive positive outcomes and can generate new insights—particularly during times of change.  

To learn more about how Press Ganey can help you improve the consumer, patient, and workforce experience, request a consultation with of our experts in human-centered design in healthcare.

About the author

Joan oversees the Experience solutions team in Strategic Consulting, partnering with clients for more than 15 years in consumer experience for the health and wellness space. Joan is known for driving innovation and engagement across large, multi-faceted organizations, and bringing valuable consumer experience ideas to fruition through the alignment of ideas, people, and processes. Joan’s passion is to transform the healthcare experience for both staff and patients. Prior to joining Press Ganey, Joan was chief experience officer at Yale New Haven Health System.

Profile Photo of Joan Kelly, EdD, M.S.Ed, MBA