Empathetic Product Design in Healthcare


24, Aug 2020. 20:34pm

At Kaiser Permanente, over 90% of mental health patients are now working with their doctors and counselors online. One executive noted, “We had been pushing telehealth options for a long time, but the rapid uptake over the past few weeks is something that would have taken years under normal circumstances.” 

The need for empathetic design in our virtual experiences has never been greater.

Yet not every hospital, clinic, or medical facility successfully meets the virtual, complex, and/or delicate needs of their patients, staff, and medical professionals.  In a previous article, we discussed how a member of our team, Louis Camassa, tried to schedule a telehealth appointment with Blue Shield via Teledoc, a telehealth provider. Camassa applied five separate times, with five different doctors, to no avail. The sixth attempt finally secured an appointment. Would all patients try this hard? For a platform with a market cap of over $13B, there is definitely room for improvement in the patient experience.

The future of virtual healthcare knows no bounds, but in some ways it’s still in its infancy.  As the world embraces telehealth services, physicians, doctors, counselors and other medical professionals should be asking themselves how they can exude empathy to everyone they work with, and even more critically with their patients. Virtual telehealth services ought to seamlessly facilitate a productive, personal, and efficient doctor/patient relationship.

The only thing is more than “not killing the patient”

Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D., who advocates for better, more user-friendly design, is principal of the Nielsen Norman Group.  Dr. Nielsen is conducting a series of lectures on improving the user experience of medical devices. He insightfully observes:

“Just because medical procedures aren’t enjoyable doesn’t mean you can’t improve the patient experience. The only thing is ‘not killing the patient.’ Making the experience more pleasant is vital. It comes down to changing the mindset of health professionals and practitioners.”


Dr. Nielsen established the Discount Usability Engineering movement to promote quick, efficient, and cheap improvements to user interfaces.  Achieving such improvements elevates any company’s profile and brand.  He continues, “Ease of use also makes people happier, and there is a high demand for better experiences. Technology is getting easier and easier to use, and that applies to all industries.”

Dr. Nielsen isn’t alone in his observations and recommendations. Hospitals and medical professionals, while exploring SaaS Platforms, will need to consider the many critical interaction aspects of the user experience.

Capitalize on patient challenges

Creating empathy in products means capitalizing on data about the patients’ challenges, thoughts, emotions, and needs.  The primary objective lies in creating a user experience of value and understanding. “People ignore design that ignores people,” as illustrator and author Frank Chimero notes.

In broad general terms, telehealth developers can interpret empathy design in three distinct categories. Kouprie and Visser identify these categories as:

  1. Research
  2. Communication
  3. Ideation 

However, upon further investigation, we can see multiple variations in the empathetic design process as recognized by Dorothy Leonard and Jeffrey F. Rayport.  Their Harvard Business Review article, “Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design,” identifies six primary steps:

  1. Observe
  2. Capture data
  3. Reflect & analyze
  4. Brainstorm for solutions
  5. Develop prototypes
  6. Test 

Developing a coherent, comprehensive system of pre-appointment, appointment, and post-appointment software enhances the relationships between patient, doctor, insurance, staff, laboratory, subcontractors, vendors, and so on. Successful interoperability across the medical field, although still challenging, is achievable. This critical need in telehealth services affords unique opportunities for innovative startups.

How Oscar improves health insurance services

For example, Mario Schlosser, Kevin Nazemi, and Josh Kushner founded the health insurance startup Oscar in 2012. Oscar Health Insurance is a technology-focused company that develops telemedicine platforms, healthcare-focused technological interfaces, and transparent pricing systems, all with the goal of making navigation simpler.

While Oscar has experienced some hiccups, it has consistently attempted to make health insurance more user-friendly by simplifying enrollment, offering personalized plans, and using straightforward language on doctor bills. Scott Landay from New York, NY summarizes his personal experience as a patient this way.

     “I have been with Oscar now for 6 months and have absolutely loved it! From the outset,
       it was so easy and intuitive to enroll and find a doctor in NYC. No headaches trying to
       decipher claims or bills and someone is always available to help. Oscar has worked
       seamlessly with my providers, saving me the time and hassle that I’ve experienced before
       with other companies’ haphazard bills. At the end of the day, I love having my
       healthcare at my fingertips. No matter where my day takes me, I know that I’ve got


Mr. Landay’s glowing review of Oscar is just one example of the positive reviews that many telehealth entrepreneurs have enjoyed.  This is precisely the kind of review that your company not only wants, but needs to earn. Your patients, clients, and colleagues deserve a convenient,  easy-to-use and error-free experience. In other sectors, making customers’ lives more convenient is what inspired successful companies like Uber, Amazon, Warby Parker, and Airbnb.

Sending automated, yet personalized messages to patients

Startup HealthLoop allows doctors to send personalized messages to patients. The convenience lies in the fact that HealthLoop automates message delivery. This innovative approach to communication results in patients feeling more engaged and satisfied with their doctor/patient relationship.  Furthermore, HealthLoop allows physicians to monitor their post-op patients more efficiently.

“HealthLoop provides a tool that establishes a real-time connection between our patients and our surgeons, improving pre-operative education and preparation as well as facilitating post-operative rapid recovery protocols,” says David Ayers, MD, The Pappas Chair of the department of Orthopedics & Rehabilitation Medicine, UMass Memorial Medical Center, University of Massachusetts Medical School. (source)

Preliminary results show that automated, empathy-driven communication reduces readmission rates, consequently increasing Medicare reimbursements. Other interesting reports seem to indicate that patients’ health literacy improves with HealthLoop.

MRI Adventure Series

GE Healthcare isn’t to be out done.  Their empathetic design for children’s MRI exams is cutting edge. GE Healthcare’s innovative MRI machines, with creative, adventure-themed designs, enable a child’s experience to go from “terrifying to terrific.”

GE’s Adventure Series started when industrial designer Doug Dietz met a young patient and “had the chance to see the room through the girl’s eyes for the first time.”

Empathy was all it took for Dietz to turn the scary experience that little girl had into a new line of scanners that improve the experiences of countless other little girls and boys.  (source)

The empathy-based design here fosters higher satisfaction for both the pediatric patients and their parents. Furthermore, happier children undergoing the MRI procedure reduces the number of pharmaceutical sedations.  Consequentially, their contentment has become a cost-saving benefit.

Virtualization radically transforms experiences

The examples we share here offer a glimpse into the possibilities for improved product and service design in the telehealth field.  The need for online, comprehensive health services will only continue to grow. As with many industries before, virtualization will radically transform how we diagnose, resolve and maintain our health—through empathetic design.