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Medical Device Design Is Critical to Bringing Healthcare into the Home

To succeed as healthcare moves to the home setting, medical device companies must prioritize good design and product usability.

Medical technology is going consumer. Both patients and care givers hold an increasing expectation that the devices they use to manage care will operate with the same ease and usability as the digital products they use every day to manage their lives. As healthcare moves to a home setting, patients require design elements that make the technology easier to use, more intuitive, and more accessible. Medical device companies are responding by focusing during design and development on those needs that are harder to tease out.

To succeed in this potential consumer market, the biggest asset to any device is good design and product usability. The keys to good design that will lead to user adoption are an understanding of both the design features and the environment in which products will be used. That pressure to deliver a great experience, along with accurate and valuable health data, is what drives this new healthcare paradigm. Medtech OEMs must understand the design psychology that plays a critical role in product adoption.

The Complex Home Health Environment

Healthcare is already a multifaceted enterprise. There are varying interactions and people who require different data points and analytics. One person is wearing the device (the patient), one or more people have responsibility for interpreting the data (the healthcare team), and other groups might be responsible for paying for the device (the payers). That is a lot of people with varying needs and motivations.

Medtech developers who are new to home care device development might be tempted to say they are only designing for a physician. Likewise, a wearable developer looking to break into the medical market might only want to appeal to a consumer. Both of those instincts could be shortsighted. Payers can be enormously influential in whether a device gets adopted. You ignore them at your peril. Likewise, if you don’t consider that wearables have a role to play in helping patients with compliance and motivation, you’ve missed the big picture. Although products can be successful by serving only one of the stakeholders, depending on who makes the buying decision, it can be more useful to serve them all in the way that they need.

Playing with that balance between capturing data and providing it to various stakeholders in a meaningful way is a significant part of the design conversation. These are ways that we can better influence the health outcome more immediately and perhaps also gain better adoption and usage. It is a virtuous cycle that engages the patient in part of their healthcare, getting them to use the equipment more and respond better to the therapy or to the monitoring.

At each step, designers can look to engage, through the user experience and presentation of data, with the stakeholder in the right way so they will use the system more and use it more effectively.

Keys to Adoption: Design Features

Designers strive to overcome the barriers of health product adoption. Perception of a product as good or bad isn’t always based on design calculations or engineering. All products, particularly ones you wear or interact with closely, need to connect emotionally.

As developers of cochlear implants, for example, we’ve seen how recognizing patient needs can lead to a new design element. With cochlear implants, we found that trying to hide the device made patients feel self-conscious. The implant is something hearing loss patients need to have every day—they live with it. Rather than try to hide it, we decided to let it be a fashion accoutrement, something the wearer could customize to suit their personality. It was something that helped wearers say: “Hey, this is part of me. Sure, this disability's part of me, and this device is part of me in the same way, and I can use it to tell the world something about myself." It became an award-winning product because it resonated emotionally with the patient population.

The best design work comes when you find these little hooks that will add to the experience, that take a device from something a patient “has to do” to something a patient “wants to do.” It becomes a welcome part of everyday life and it has value.

Keys to Adoption: User Environment

Considering the environment where the product is used is also critical. For example, many medical devices were designed for nurses, doctors, and other hospital staff. These are people “at work.” We all know that life is different “at work” than it is at home or running errands. First off, the hospital environment is far more predictable. Don’t get me wrong, the hospital setting comes with a huge set of challenges, but we know what a clinical room looks like, what machines might be inside, and the level of training the operator has undergone to operate a device. You know the user and the needs.

A device used in the home comes with a bigger question mark. Training a user or home caregiver might require more resources, reminders, and safety checks. Visual instructions, websites, and videos can be used to supplement written instructions that come with a device, but the controls and interface are more critical.

For example, a heat-driven acne treatment system we supported a few years ago used a clinical model, selling through dermatologists. The company wanted to take the product to pharmacy and retail locations. The company needed help with the commercialization and that started with us redefining the user. After some research, we were able to pull out the essentials of the product—applying heat therapy to treat acne—but the rest of the product was a blank slate. We found that we could change the form factor and appeal to this new consumer.

Essential Questions

A good way to think about the users of home health care products, particularly for digitally driven products, is that they are new customers to the medtech industry. Understanding a new customer starts with asking essential questions. Who are we doing this for and how are we going to deliver it to them? What are the price points going to be? Where are they going to use the product? Those questions are where design teams can pull out information to drive the product line. It's important to follow rigorous processes for getting those data.

At heart, this is about defining the user and putting their needs in place. Designers and developers need to think about how to measure those needs through usability research, with objective, statistical data. That data illuminates the psychology of the new user and can lead medtech developers down a path of home healthcare success.

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