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Adapting service design to telehealth

Telehealth platforms require a unique approach to service design. Learn how Star tackles this complicated problem.

Service design focuses on users’ needs and ensures consistency throughout their experience – i.e. the user journey. It takes into consideration the stakeholders, infrastructure, and required material components and defines how a solution is delivered to benefit end-users and service providers. Today’s users see value in both the product itself and how it integrates into and supports their lives.

As you can imagine, you don’t design services for a remote healthcare platform the same way as, say, a food delivery service. Healthcare institutions’ unique and complex setup makes them particularly challenging. Additionally, user adoption in such a fundamental area of life is its own challenge; all new digital health players struggle to overcome this fact.

In this article, we’ll highlight the unique challenges faced by digital health companies and startups. Then we’ll discuss how telehealth can benefit from a holistic service design approach. Finally, we’ll lay out Star’s general approach to telehealth service design.

The urgent need for telehealth

The world’s population is growing. It’s also getting older. This dynamic is increasing the demand for innovative healthcare solutions. Telehealth platforms and services promise to democratize healthcare access, personalize patient care, and enable providers to become more efficient. Additionally, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many shortcomings in healthcare systems and infrastructures while highlighting the need for remote medical and virtual care solutions.

Many companies are eager to explore solutions that allow people to access healthcare from their own homes. But even after going through numerous legal hurdles, bringing telehealth services to market often fails. Why is this? 

First, there’s healthcare’s inherently complex ecosystem. Many institutions and stakeholders interact (or don’t interact!) and follow standardized workflows that are specific to each country. Changing one element impacts the entire ecosystem, which slows down innovation and improvement processes.

Second, user adoption of new solutions is difficult. Health is such an essential element of our society that there is a strong resistance to change. This resistance comes from patients, providers, and even from established workflows.

In recent years, many telehealth platforms failed because of a disconnect between the solution and users’ lives; they simply couldn’t integrate into existing ecosystems and workflows. Good telehealth service design should make sense of complex setups and procedures. It should turn a complicated system into an accessible, relevant, and seamless experience for everyone involved.

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Challenges and opportunities in telehealth service design 

The “Triple Aim”

Service design is a holistic, highly user-centric approach to problem-solving. When designing for telehealth solutions, we need to go beyond individual needs and aims. Instead, we center on what’s called a Triple Aim: 

  1. Enhance the patient experience. 
  2. Improve population health outcomes. 
  3. Control healthcare costs. 

In other words, when designing for a remote health solution, it is important to keep the larger positive impact in mind. Individual experiences are important, but so are improving population health and reducing costs; these are part of the democratization of healthcare.

Building new bridges

Telehealth platforms and services imply designing new relationships between stakeholders. Igniting or transforming communication channels in healthcare raises many questions: 

  • How willing are these stakeholders to interact with each other? 
  • More importantly, how ethical is it for some users to interact? To what extent? 
  • Do doctors want to video chat with their patients? If so, how do they want to do this? 
  • Do patients want their health data to be tracked 24/7 by their doctor and insurance companies? 
  • Do pharmacists want to send prescribed medicine directly to patients’ homes? 

That being said, there is a tremendous opportunity to accelerate innovation through unexpected partnerships. For example, a digital health startup could collaborate with home appliance makers, furniture brands, or Cloud and telecom service providers. This would allow the startup to use the scale and expertise of these companies in building their own products; it would also help the startup integrate its offering into existing ecosystems and devices.

The digital transformation of healthcare (and, indeed, all industries) will generate new collaboration models, channels, and partnerships. It’s important to pay attention to how ethical and economically sustainable they will be for all stakeholders.

Providing incentives for all stakeholders

In telehealth, more than patients and doctors need to be considered. Employers, government and public institutions, pharmaceuticals, and insurance companies are also key stakeholders. And there are others to take into consideration when designing telehealth services.

Every party needs to 100% engage in a telehealth ecosystem, but this is where many products fail. Why would a doctor change their workflow? Why would patients connect their smartwatch and share their private data? Qualitative research is needed to deeply understand how clear incentives and value can be provided to each user; otherwise, the service will not be adopted. 

Therefore, starting at the right place is critical for telehealth design. Providing task automation for healthcare providers and convenient health insights for patients are often good introductions to a more comprehensive telehealth service.

Patient-centricity

We are living in a new paradigm for healthcare and remote health services. With the wellness sector booming (meditation apps, yoga, etc.), patients are no longer passively receiving health advice. Instead, they are taking an active role and becoming the central actors in the ecosystem. 

For telehealth service design, this means patients will expect more power and transparency when it comes to the reasoning behind receiving medical treatment. The introduction of AI and process automation – and the increased amount of personal data being shared – will also prompt higher expectations regarding healthcare service personalization.

Inclusive and contextual services

Telehealth services usually address a much broader audience than other services. Thus, telehealth service design requires awareness of a wide variety of cultural, age, geographic, and health issues.

Services should be contextual to the different phases of the patient journey. Patients’ engagement and expectations will be dramatically different when they are using the service for diagnosis versus treatment management (to give an example). Therefore, telehealth services should either transform themselves along with the patient journey or target specific moments within it.

Driving user adoption

Telehealth is challenging the status quo on how healthcare is delivered. Telehealth services are rarely “one-time-use”; integrating into each user’s unique routine, or positively changing it, is a must.

Therefore, adopting common design patterns and service logic is critical for telehealth services. Design inspiration can come from anywhere from gaming to social media platforms as long as it feels familiar to the users.

On the operational side, telehealth platforms will need more non-medical staff to assist patients throughout remote experiences. For instance, Star was involved in developing the ZEISS vision care solution, in which a trained technician helps the patient connect with a remote optometrist. This requires adapting the design and procedures to match the skills of the on-site employee.

Finally, while telemedicine solutions are tremendously important for our aging population, this is also where there is the most resistance to change. 

How can you meet the needs of today’s digitally-empowered consumer? See how leading health and wellness companies are adapting their approach. 

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Trust and transparency

People trust people (e.g. patients trust doctors) more readily than they trust devices. Intersecting anonymous digital processes between the two parties is a challenge for many telehealth services, particularly when the patients are older. Gradually creating trust in digital health services is key. 

Additionally, most telehealth platforms require patients to supply highly personal, sensitive data. Transparency – communicating how their data will be used and why it is valuable – can help telehealth companies earn patients’ trust. Security and privacy safeguards must be central to any telehealth service design. 

Future-proof design

Telehealth service blueprints should be as device-agnostic as possible; at the very least, they should plan for continuous changes and updates. Implementation and approval processes (e.g. FDA approval, HIPAA compliance, etc.) often take years. By the time solutions arrive on the market, there’s a risk that the medical devices and technologies originally included in the blueprint have become outdated. (Just think about how quickly smartphones and Wi-Fi standards have evolved in the last few years.) Therefore, the focus of telehealth service design should be on adding value and improving workflows and interactions; ideally, it should not be dependent on specific technologies.

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Star’s 4-step telehealth design process

Telehealth requires service designers to switch gears. Most services today are evaluated on their convenience, speed,  and “cool factor”. When designing for healthcare services, the criteria are different: enhanced patient experience, improved population health outcomes, and controlling health care costs – the Triple Aim – are the benchmark for success.

Many design methods favor quickly trying and failing, but this is hardly applicable when designing for telehealth. This sector needs time and care.

At Star, we’re experienced telehealth service designers. And we are constantly seeking to improve access to healthcare around the globe. We’ve found the following four-step process results in successful telehealth design projects:

1. Explore and identify

We start with a kick-off workshop with our client. We discuss opportunities and challenges, define ideal project outcomes, and specify the timeline. Afterward, we conduct exhaustive secondary research, analyzing digital health trends and competitors’ actions. 

At the same time, we also orchestrate field research, expert interviews, and user interviews. We host meetups where stakeholders (including patients) exchange ideas. This allows us to gain insight into the project and build empathy between stakeholders.

2. Ideation and storytelling

Based on our research findings, we conduct an exploration workshop with our client. This is where we draft innovative solutions and delve into user journeys. We identify the most promising ideas based on jointly developed criteria.

Service design can be quite abstract: storytelling is a powerful tool for turning early-stage ideas into self-explanatory content that streamlines internal communication and approval processes. Storytelling here usually takes shape as a storyboard or a short video that illustrates key service touchpoints and value propositions for each stakeholder.

Storytelling also helps healthcare professionals unlock their own creativity and switch focus onto patients’ needs. Therefore, it can be used to evaluate main stakeholders’ interest in the service and gather their feedback and ideas.

3. Strategize and develop

Next, we work with our clients to co-create a product roadmap and business strategy. We outline models for partnerships and define the Return on Investment (ROI) and the delivery plan.

Together with medical experts, we develop an extensive blueprint of the envisioned telehealth design, listing interactions between stakeholders, new processes, and workflows. We also define the physical and digital artifacts that will be used. 

At this stage, we can orchestrate a real-life simulation with future users to gather more insights. 

By the end of this step, we’ve created visual content and material to support the socialization of the concept.

4. Taking it live

Star offers expertise that goes beyond service design. Based on the blueprint of the envisioned telehealth service, we can turn digital and physical artifacts into minimum viable products (MVPs, or products that have basic features and can be used to gather feedback).  MVPs are essential to the clinical trials we run in collaboration with our clients. 

After fine-tuning the service and obtaining medical authorities’ clearance, it’s time for launch! At this stage, it’s important to ensure the envisioned workflow and interactions are happening as intended. When expanding the service, adapting to the cultural differences and specificities of the local healthcare system is crucial.

Service design is essential to telehealth

The world needs better and more efficient healthcare systems, systems that can provide quality services to a growing and aging population. Innovation in telehealth will accelerate due to the recent COVID-19 crisis, and medical care from the convenience of people’s homes will be the new normal. 

The need for more remote healthcare platforms makes meaningful telehealth service design essential to user adoption and success. Good service design brings health solutions to life and allows them to adapt to the unique needs and circumstances of users around the world.