Think small, embrace boring and make a difference

With so much press about health tech it’s too easy to get excited for the future and miss the impact you can have right now! There’s a lot of focus on technologies which are at least 5–10 years away from us.

Stoyan Ilchev CSO of Despark provides a refreshing perspective on revolutionising healthcare by focusing on the small things that you can do right now with minimal budget, to make an impact on people’s lives.

“As Chief Strategy Officer my role is to regularly look at what’s beyond the horizon and to navigate the best path to lead my clients there. But, as a product person I cannot ignore the small steps that everyone can take now to make a difference.

We often ignore the current reality as something better is around the corner. A common example of this may be thinking ‘Why make it faster for doctors to capture and analyse patients data when doctors will soon be replaced by computers and they can do that much faster anyway?’. In fact, Denmark has already launched a campaign to replace doctors with robots as they are facing a problem with the ageing population, which requires more care but there is no one to provide it. So, why bother optimising our interfaces for visually impaired people when soon everything will be voice controlled anyway?

Eric Meyer is a somewhat of a web celebrity who started advocating the use of CSS way before anyone else. In 2014 his daughter Rebecca was dying from a rare form of cancer. He was travelling in his car to yet another hospital. Scared for the life of his daughter, he checked the hospital website to see what he should do when he arrives, as this was a new hospital and new city for him. The hospital interface emphasised its ‘world-class’ doctors but didn’t tell him how to find the emergency room. Think about it. How many hospital websites have a banner on top saying “Are you coming here unexpectedly? Click here to find out what you need to know.”? Instead we often see a beautiful stock photo and soothing colour palette and press releases down the side.

Have we thought about the effect similar situations could have on our mental health? What if he couldn’t find the room and therefore couldn’t say goodbye to his daughter because of this? What if your loved one is with you in that car fighting to stay alive and finding the emergency room ahead of time is a matter of life and death? No person designing or managing that website thought about this small — yet huge thing.

Even now, when we look at the products we design, we always design them for the average user. We rarely look and design for the extremes. How easy it is for a mother to access the information from an app which could help her save her child’s life in a critical situation? How easy it is for a doctor to take over full control when our automated health care system fails completely? What happens when digital health assistants are designed for the average user, only ask the standard questions and fail to identify a serious problem with someone?

A lot of people are sceptical towards the healthcare digital future, but those who know how technology works say that they are more confident — they know technology doesn’t get tired and can analyse a lot more data than humans. The biggest question is how to build trust in people towards that future? Maybe we have to take small steps to demonstrate how technology could adapt to help you in critical situations, like in that hospital example. Or technology could listen to your problems and treat you like a human, the way good doctors do it. Because sometimes a human is needed to make a patient confident enough to share — which will help doctors dig deeper to get to the bottom of the problem. My chronic stomach pain could be a result of something much deeper, which only a good conversation could surface. What can we do about it?

Humans and software should work together. One should not replace the other. Computers should do the tasks which are repetitive, which are boring, which are unsafe. Humans should do the tasks which are human centred.

Technology is focusing too much on speaking and too little on listening.

Healthcare tools right now are mostly following a one way communication model. The most valuable thing for a lot of people is having conversations, that creates a feeling of belonging. We should design tools which enable and enhance this.

At Despark right now we’re working on a project focused on elderly people and people with dementia. The number one thing we keep hearing about ‘digital’ is that these audience groups are scared of it and yet they are the ones who need it the most. They get scared when they hear a voice they cannot associate with a real human, they don’t understand the value technology could provide. Old people really really like the face contact when trying to find out information. How do we address that?

On the other hand we have millennials who prefer technology as it is often faster and anonymous — or so they think.

The cost of digital healthcare is often huge amounts of sensitive data. Before trying to think how AR and VR can revolutionise healthcare and how we can free up space in hospitals, we should have a sense of how much extra sensitive information that would generate, and how we could securely store it. How many of the apps out there have a system for data encryption and backups? A lot of this is in the control of the people who create these products? It’s our responsibility to design and develop them that way, it’s your responsibility to demand it.

Sometimes you have to think small and focus on the boring things — like your hospital website, or the software that stores and manages your patients data. And while these things might not have as big of an impact as the stuff that excites us when we read about ‘health tech’, the cost and time it takes to make that change is also less and you’re still helping someone who relies on you. Let’s always consider these extremes to make sure that no one is left behind.

Parting note — I want you to think about the smallest or the most boring thing you could do within your organisation, which could have a real impact on someone’s health or wellbeing."

This presentation was given at “Prescription for Success” event in London.

Written by

Stoyan Ilchev

CEO at Despark