The Future of Wellness: Digital Health and the Human Element

The three guiding principles of digital tool design are plan around user experience; aim high with creative, strategic thinking; and ensure that digital transformation is supported with top-down commitment.

As the world adjusts to the ongoing impact of the black swan health event that has dominated the last 18 months, the need for effective and efficient digital healthcare has taken on a new urgency. For those of us who are both involved in and have an ongoing interest in how digital engineering can be applied to required health and wellness outcomes, the COVID-19 pandemic was not only a necessary catalyst for digital transformation but also one that flagged up the challenges to be faced.

Virtual health is nothing new. The healthcare sector has been making slow and steady progress towards improving patient satisfaction and operational efficiency for at least the last decade. But the difference is that we now have the tools to take this focus to the next level. The caveat is that the hype surrounding digital health needs to be rooted in reality.

Digital health is for patients and providers

A recent report from the World Economic Forum said that around 66 percent of healthcare providers spread across 14 global markets are investing significant amounts of resources and time into digital health solutions. This is good news for patients, thanks to the simple truth that the digitalization of society brings benefits that may not always be available in the physical world.

For that reason alone, we should think about why digital health needs to have engagement from all stakeholders to be truly successful. Often, this would be patient-centric, but we must take into account that the end users are likely to be doctors, nurses, clinicians and insurance companies.

When you evaluate why a digital health solution works – and, importantly, where it falls short – you need to measure both the patient experience and the healthcare professional that is using that product. The health sector is undergoing fundamental changes, but the levels of digital change and maturity required must also factor in the tens of millions of healthcare workers who must use these tools as part of their day job.

According to a recent industry study, the average healthcare worker cites frustration and ease-of-use as having a significant impact on their day-to-day interactions with technology – 63% said that digital health solutions added more stress, 83% said their jobs were harder to do when “new” digital tools were introduced. If these numbers are accurate, then there is a danger of a digital disconnect between the companies that supply these products and the people who have to use them.

Of course, the impact of the pandemic has made the last 18 months incredibly hard for healthcare workers, but the introduction of technology should make people’s lives easier, not more pressured.

If we are to achieve true digital transformation in healthcare, we need technology that supports people, not the other way around. That means we must take a 360-degree view of not only who is using the tech available but also the people who engage with it daily.

Patient-provider relationship needs good design

When digital health solutions work well, they are the platform on which the patient-provider dynamic can be built. Virtual technologies can improve patient outcomes and the processes that lead to the effective completion of said outcomes. That can be measured in many ways – faster access to information through chatbots and digital assistants, tailored therapies, improved diagnostics, less time spent on admin, to name but a few.

On the flip side, if health technology does not meet the requirements of the end users, then there is a danger that it becomes an avoidable bottleneck in terms of dispensing care to those who need it. When that happens, healthcare workers can revert to ether what they know or workarounds.

The question is, how can digital tools be designed in such a way that they are supporting the people and processes required for patient wellness and successful health outcomes? In our experience, the starting point is always that all digital touchpoints are a potential advantage, not only in a competitive sense but also in delivering the right outcome at the right time.

With that in mind, there are three guiding design principles that should be followed.

First, plan around user experience from day one. By identifying where the pain points could be in the end user journey – whether that be doctor, nurse, ancillary staff, insurance provider or patient – a solution can tick the boxes they need at the moment they need them. By putting users at the heart of a digital strategy, the result will be better patient care, operational improvements and targeted treatments.

Second, aim high with creative, strategic thinking. For example, a leading oncology patient management platform is focused on being patient - as opposed to provider - centric. By understanding that patient health is a two-way street, the platform can increase engagement, improve patient monitoring and treatment adherence, encourage healthier behavior and produce better outcomes.

Finally, an enterprise needs to ensure that its digital transformation is supported with top-down commitment. When there is a need to transform, the likelihood of success is higher if everybody knows why this path is being taken. On a very basic level, if the healthcare worker understands that a digital solution has been designed with them in mind, they are more likely to provide useful feedback and suggested improvements during the rollout phase.

Digital health is the future of wellness

As noted, digital healthcare is nothing new. The sector has been both ripe for change and eager to embrace the brave new world of digital tools and innovative wellness solutions for several years.

That acceptance that the physical nature of patient care will be more digitalized is one of the reasons why the balance between healthcare workers and the tools that they use every day must be right. The future of healthcare will rely on a digital maturity that (in some cases) is still a work-in-progress. The next generation technologies – data and predictive analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, for example – will play an increasingly pivotal role in how the healthcare sector evolves.

Digital healthcare has come a long way in the last 18 months, but this is arguably the start of the journey. Patient wellness must always be the key component of an effective healthcare system. What matters now is ensuring that all the pieces of the digital puzzle fit.

Sunil Bhagdev is director of customer success at Infostretch, a digital engineering professional services firm.