How User Research Improves Quality of Care in Healthcare

Posted / 11 February, 2021

Author / Enginess

How User Research Improves Quality of Care in Healthcare

User research is usually reserved for digital designers building apps and websites. It might not be where it came from, but today it’s often thought of as a digital-only field.

In reality though, understanding how people navigate complex systems — be it a website, an airplane cockpit, or the healthcare system — is always going to make the system better.

With COVID top of mind and more eyes (and awareness) on our healthcare system than ever before, we thought it’d be worth looking at how user research can be used to improve patient care.

Here we go!

What is user research?

Before we get started, let’s just get this out of the way.

User research is when you learn about the users of your product, system, or service and use that information to inform your design or solution. You learn about their needs, wants, and behaviours, and then build specifically for those personas, use cases, or challenges you’ve uncovered.

There are a ton of methods used in this broad framework, but they’re generally bucketed as qualitative and quantitative

Quantitative methods are focused on learning the user behaviour that’s happening already, or what would happen if presented a set of problems. It’s about filtering out opinion and getting down to the hard facts of what users actually do (or would do). Methods include:

  • Surveys
  • Formal experiments
  • Guided usability tests

Qualitative methods are more focused on the who and the why. Who are the people using this system, (beyond demographic data), how do they think, and what do they need? Second, why do they do what they do? What motivates their behaviour? Common methods include:

  • User interviews
  • Ethnographies

Regardless of how you do it, the point is to put your users at the core of your product or service, and build and design accordingly.

Now that we’re clear on what we’re talking about, let’s dive into how it can improve healthcare.


1. Designs out medical errors

Medical errors are a huge problem. Medical errors run the gamut from the harmless mistakes like the wrong bandages being applied to the wrong surgery being performed. In 2019, they accounted for 28,000 deaths in Canada.

They’re a very serious problem.

And they’re not a simple problem to solve. The healthcare system is immensely complex, and nurses and doctors are under huge cognitive loads for extremely long hours.

An easy example is medication. Drugs come in pill or liquid form and, barring some examples, are all in pretty much identical boxes and look pretty much the same. Aside from the challenges of potentially prescribing the wrong medicine, it’s very easy to accidentally administer the wrong product. 

This has a huge impact on patient wellness, and potentially even patient outcomes.

2. Uncovers non-medical healthcare challenges

Most of the interactions between patients and the hospitals they use are (understandably) about their treatment and healthcare.

But there are a ton of other factors, particularly in hospitals, that can impact quality of care that may be simmering under the surface. 

These may be impacting patient outcomes, and almost definitely are impacting the quality of care. User research may be helpful in uncovering some of these challenges, especially for specific user groups who the system wasn’t designed for (e.g. non-native English speakers).

Of course, with any user research in an incredibly complex system, you’re likely to find some things that are awful — and very difficult to change. But you’ll also usually find quick wins that can improve the quality of care without making major changes to the system.

User research can help you find those quick wins and quickly juice your quality of care.


3. Increase pre-patient selfcare / triaging

There are two significant problems that user research may be able to address in healthcare. 

First, the experience of being a patient is something that most people don’t do that often.  It’s not a system you know or a world you’re familiar with, and because of that, it’s difficult and stressful to know what to do.

Overlay that with the stress of an illness, and you have a perfect storm for a poor experience. 

At the same time, a lot of what the healthcare system does is reassure and validate decision making. It’s there, in part, to make experts available to people so they can make good decisions about their health. For example, when you go to the doctor to get something “checked out” and they say do nothing, it’s not a wasted trip. You’ve validated that you’re doing the right thing.

Second, the time that valuable medical staff spend collecting essentially routine information makes wait times longer and healthcare more expensive. And if Chris Kiess’s experience is anything to go by, this routine information is collected multiple times. 

User research could potentially address these problems by: 

  •  Helping patients understand what experience to expect
  • Helping patients know what information is going to be expected
  • Streamlining how that information flows into the system to the right people at the right time
  • Understanding what information is needed and when
  • Mapping the overall user flow and finding friction points or problems and designing better solutions to address them

Quality of care is a patient-centric question

Quality of care is fundamentally about improving the experience and outcome for the patient. It’s a user-focused question, and thus a user research approach is the natural fit. 

From addressing challenges that have direct impact on health outcomes like designing out medical errors to challenges that have an indirect impact, like improving how information flows to the right doctor at the right time, user research can do a lot in the background to make a stressful experience a little bit easier.

Because like anything, the medical apparatus didn’t just happen. It was designed, deliberately or not — which means that design might be one tool to fix it.


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