Improving Patient Experience Through Design Thinking

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by Callie Patel, Director, Innovation Consulting

No matter where you are on your path to digital transformation, you should start orienting toward a better patient experience now. Patients may not have ample choice in all health and wellness markets, but they will soon, thanks to:

  • Shifting primary care model due to the drive toward value-based care
  • Better and increasing options for at-home and community care with expansion of telehealth—especially within more competitive health systems
  • More options than ever for patients to explore and consider as they take a more active role in their care

The best way to renew your focus on patient experience is to have an open mind when developing a strategy. Design thinking is key to starting that process; it starts with empathizing as a method to problem-solving and embracing mindset shifts to align desirability, technology feasibility and business viability.

But first, let’s talk about what we really mean when we say “patient experience.”

Defining Patient Experience

Patient experience is “the sum of all interactions—shaped by an organization’s culture—that influences patient perceptions across the continuum of care,” as defined by The Beryl Institute. This means going beyond clinical care and treating every patient with dignity, respect and competence.

The ultimate goal in improving patient experience is to find answers to the question, “What human needs are not being met at our organization?” This reframing widens the scope of potential solutions to improve patient experience.

Innovation sits at the center of desirability (what makes sense to people and for people), feasibility and viability. So find out what your patients desire. Look at your organization through the eyes of many patients—for example, a patient who is:

  • New to the health system and seeking guidance on how to navigate their care in a new environment
  • Struggling to understand or cope with a difficult diagnosis
  • Leaving without answers and feeling frustrated or unheard

How and when do patients experience your organization? Is it designed to make every one of their experiences easier?

Improving patient experience means defining a roadmap for making patient’s lives easier and healthier, prioritized by what they really want. And that’s where the key tenants of design thinking come into play: empathy, ideation and experimentation.

Step 1: Understand Your Patients

One of the first and most important questions you should ask during the design thinking process is: who am I creating an experience for, and what are their needs? Although this may seem obvious, it’s a step that’s often overlooked. Luckily, this tenant of design thinking—empathy—is easier when strategizing to improve patient experience, because the “who” is the patient, and we are all patients. But not all patients have the same expectations or requirements in their experience. Each individual arrives at a health system for different reasons and will have different experiences. It’s important not to look at this concept too broadly or key details can be missed.

A great place to start gathering those details is in a focus group setting. At Healthbox, we frequently lead focus groups on behalf of our clients. We start by asking questions to better understand patient experience from their perspective. We want to make sure we’re removing any potential assumptions or bias we might have and approaching this setting as a blank space to embrace participants’ feedback. This gets us closer to understanding the root cause of why an experience might be frustrating—or exceptional.

To know your patients best, you must also know their community. If your organization is not regularly engaging the surrounding community for feedback through town hall meetings or in focus groups, it may be time to start.

Observation is another simple but impactful exercise to put you directly into the shoes of the consumer you’re studying. Consider observing the discharge process, for example, and note what kind of guidance is provided for recovery—how clearly and specifically are instructions communicated? What resources is the patient provided with, if any? Does the patient get the chance to ask questions? Another approach: take a seat in the waiting area. What do you observe about the process from the door to the front desk? How are patients introduced into the health system? How would you feel as a new patient? A returning one? By asking these questions, you can gather valuable information to define the problems that need to be solved and to support your overall design thinking process.

Step 2: Brainstorm With Your Staff

Next, it’s time to convene a diverse group from different parts and levels of the organization and start brainstorming. The information you collected during focus groups or other methods can help drive a more productive brainstorm session. Share your findings, and see how staff respond to the information. Does the group have a collective understanding of who their consumer or patient is and what needs of theirs are going unmet? If not, you may need to go back to step one and continue collecting more information before ideating.

It’s important to remember that no idea is a bad idea and to encourage each participant to share their perspective. Well-rounded feedback from the group is critical in order to be adequately prepared for prototyping.

By hosting multiple brainstorming sessions, participants will have an opportunity to digest different ideas and information shared during previous sessions and then return to the table with a refreshed mindset.

Step 3: Experiment for Best Results

You’ve discovered what different patients desire. You’ve heard from staff about how they think you can fulfill that desire. Now it’s time to put those ideas to the test in the form of a new solution or process through experimentation—a key tenant of design thinking.

Understand where your organization has assets already in place to tackle this challenge before getting started. Then you can test the potential solution(s) you’ve brainstormed. And don’t plan for 6–12 months to initiate a pilot… set out the next day and try even the smallest of changes that came out of the brainstorming sessions; then listen to feedback from patients and team members, and iterate quickly. Design thinking is about less planning and predicting and instead more about action and testing.

Tying It All Together

As consumers have more options at their fingertips, literally, it’s more important than ever to improve patient centricity—and that’s why an out-of-the-box approach is critical.

Although engaging in the process of design thinking can seem like an extensive process, the result should be less complex. It’s okay to start small. Even minor changes can have major impact—resulting in improvements in both patient experience and back-end experience for providers and other health system employees. Plus, it’s important to remember the common dictum, “If you design for everyone, you design for no one.” There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to improve patient experience, but by starting small, we can chip away at unique needs going unmet and determine a broader plan of action that puts the patient at the center.

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