Designing healthcare for humans

Jordan L Shlain MD shares two moments that changed the way he thinks about patient aftercare


I’m more bullish today on healthcare innovation delivery than I’ve been at any point in the past decade. All around us, successful industries are reinventing themselves by embedding human centered design as a foundational element for innovation. We see it with companies like Apple, Amazon, Virgin, and Uber and I believe the healthcare sector will be next. The difference is that healthcare can be existential, involving strong emotions and issues such as life and death, fear and anxiety, waiting…and uncertainty.

From ideas…

In my life there have been two major ‘aha’ moments. The first was when a hotel concierge told me I that even though I might have 5-star smarts, our industry only offered 1-star service. I subsequently started the San Francisco On Call Medical Group which quickly grew to seven doctors by focusing on service. Our patients had our mobile phone numbers and could text, email or drop-in to see us. Alternatively, we would make house calls.  We met them where they were in time and space.

My second ‘aha’ moment came after a patient left my office one day with antibiotics, my mobile number and an instruction to call me at any time if she became unwell. She never called, but wound up in ICU. Healthcare is horrible at the follow-up stage, and putting myself in place of my patients, I knew that if I was sick, I would want my doctor to call and check in on me. I started thinking about how to call each patient every day to ask them how they were; after some tinkering, I built a simple software tool that would email patients and do just that.

This evolved into Healthloop, a feedback loop between doctor and patient visits that provided contextual, relevant information and insight into patient progress. There were no wearables and no iPhones, just email.  

…to innovations

Healthcare innovations need to be designed to solve real problems for real people. Its complexity, however, involves large numbers of people for whom we have to simultaneously solve different problems. That’s tricky. Digital health offers an answer to some of those problems, but long before the term was really coined, people thought I was crazy for trying to interpolate a new process into the system. I had to convince them that decreasing the friction of communication between doctors and patients was a good thing, not a bad thing. 

The most valuable opportunities lie in finding like-minded, forward thinking, early adopters who are not afraid to fail and learn; the most important innovation is decreasing anxiety and uncertainty for patients after a clinical / surgical encounter. The old physician axiom of ‘no news is good news’ is false. We want news, all of it. Patients want information – an answer to the question ‘Is this normal or is this not? Can I do this or can I not?’ All with a click.

My key starting point is to put myself in others’ shoes and ask, ‘How would I want this to work for me?’ Then, it’s time to start asking questions.

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