If you build it will they come? 3 Major Takeaways on the Necessity for Human Factors in Healthcare


I think I may be an aspiring anti-conformist. Being around innovators and those individuals engaged in positive disruption of engrained and sometimes complacent systems gives me a perceptible boost of energy. Having just concluded attending and presenting research at the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 2018 Healthcare Symposium or “HFES HCS,” I can only describe the feeling I am leaving with as an amalgamation of optimism and resolve. The ability to be immersed in groundbreaking research and previewing new and imminent technologies that will soon completely change the way we deliver, and access healthcare is an almost overwhelming experience that’s difficult to explain in mere words. However, not codifying my takeaways from this event feels like a missed opportunity. Therefore, I will do my best to condense the what I have learned from this event and what we can all look forward to seeing in the near future of healthcare.

1.)   Participatory Design is the key to designing and integrating successful systems.

This term has been around for a long time now, and many of us in systems and environmental design have known for a while, at least based on anecdote, that having users help shape product or process engineering typically elicits positive results. However, the preponderance of research that now supports this has truly enabled this concept to make the logical leap from “Plausibility” to “Belief.” Evidence now unequivocally supports that given the increasing complexity of healthcare and the rising encroachment of technology into our lives having cross-functional teams of those that both USE and EXPERIENCE healthcare tools, technology, and environments co-design care delivery product or processes is a necessity for outcome success. This circumstance has gone from a historical concept of “nice to have” to a present-day fact of “need to have.” Which brings me to my second observation…  

2.)   Usable design saves lives. Period.

This is not to say that the design for your product shouldn’t contain other features such as those that increase user efficiency, work effectivity, and comfort. However, regardless of how much sound science, statistics, and/or schmancy technology is included your product or service design if it is not highly usable people will either not use it as much or eventually not use it at all. Don’t believe me? Look around you. How many of your smartphones still have keypads? How many of you still drive a car with a stick-shift? Those of you who follow me on Twitter @LSundahlPlatt know that my favorite quote from this conference was “Let the user ‘break your design,’ that just gives you the opportunity to make it better.” Which brings me to my final point…

3.)   Watch what people do more than simply relying on what they tell you.

Anytime I go to the dentist he asks me if I am flossing regularly every day and I always say, “YES.” The fact of the matter is that although I do try to floss regularly my typical routine for doing so is contingent upon if I have time, when I remember, and when I have something stuck in my teeth. In this particular example, he knows I’m not being truthful and I know I’m just flat out lying. Never the less, we still do this dance and hopefully, no lives will be lost because of my vigilance decrement for flossing. Healthcare delivery and access is a different story. Interviewing clinical subject matter experts, patients, and families although helpful is not enough to really understand how to analyze and design human-centered tools. A great case in point asserted in one of the presentations at HFES HCS is that a great deal of critical patient support equipment is designed for completely immobile patients. The fact is that often patients are rarely completely physically immobile. Additionally, when patients are in the recovery stage often increasing their capable mobility may speed healing. Basically, for effectively analyzing and designing for Human Factors, observation and simulation are essential for creating user-centered tools that assist in care optimization.

Although this is a far from comprehensive list hopefully it gives you a bit of a snapshot of the latest and truly greatest trends in Human Centered Healthcare. I think we all can sense we are very close to a tipping point. The days of restrictive and prescriptive pathways for delivering and accessing care are behind us. Clinical care professionals are rightfully demanding, and often creating, care delivery tools and technologies that are more usable, effective, and have the potential to lessen rather layer on to clinician burn-out. Patients and family members are gravitating towards care access mechanisms that are easy to use, efficient, and can be better customized to fit their individual care needs. Those of us in healthcare research, design and development should be advised that we better either decide we are going to ride this human-centered healthcare wave or duck and cover. Personally speaking…I am going to delightedly grab a big surfboard! So, when it comes to the new healthcare paradigm or process, product, and place design, “If you build it will they come?” Perhaps initially, but not for long if you are not integrating Human Factors into your design and development process.


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Lisa Sundahl Platt is the CEO and Founder of UMNSystems LLC.  She writes about the systems and science of organizational and cultural resilience and how it impacts the human experience.