MDO Article: How to design home healthcare devices that people will use

This article originally appeared in Medical Design and Outsourcing on February 21, 2019, written by Product Creation Studio Chief Technology Officer, Scott Thielman.

Photo by Dean Mitchell/iStock / Getty Images

The global smart home healthcare market is exploding as more medical devices are designed for use wherever the patient is, including at home. A report by Research and Markets predicts sales of these devices to reach $30 billion by 2023, up from $4.5 billion in 2017. Fall prevention and detection devices hold the largest share of the market, which is expanding to include safety and security monitoring, health status monitoring, compliance aids, and nutrition monitoring.

Developing these devices is one thing. Designing them so users find their technology intuitive, accessible, and easy-to-use is another. Patients and caregivers who are comfortable with consumer digital products expect their home healthcare devices to be just as user-friendly. Ease of use boosts compliance, and in the world of consumer health, compliance is everything.

A deep understanding of user behavior can have a significant impact on compliance. Here are some behavioral strategies that can improve compliance and create the ideal at-home healthcare experience.

Make the technology invisible

Developers are exploring ways to make home digital devices automatic and able to blend seamlessly into consumers’ lives. One example is Athelas, a next-generation immune monitoring device that mimics technology already found in many homes. Athelas measures neutrophils, lymphocytes, platelets, white blood cells, morphology, and cell activation within minutes from a finger-prick of blood. Its unobtrusive design as a 3-D printed black cylinder is reminiscent of Amazon’s Alexa device, with a small window to insert the test strips. Instead of focusing on flashy design, the developers tout the device’s transparent accuracy and scientific validity.

Though not very “sexy,” another attention-grabber is a smart toilet seat. Developed by the Rochester Institute of Technology, this toilet seat measures diastolic and systolic blood pressures, stroke volume, blood oxygenation, heart rate, heart rate variability, QRS duration, and corrected QT interval, and patient weight. The device’s design uses an everyday activity to capture data that would otherwise require multiple devices that aren’t as easy to use.

Make the technology automatic

Diabetes devices have made significant leaps with continuous glucose monitors. For example, Abbott’s FreeStyle Libre replaces a finger stick with a 14-day sensor patch worn on the upper arm. It automatically measures glucose readings and transmits them to a smartphone or reader for accurate insulin dosing.

Remove barriers to use

Anything that introduces a user roadblock can deter a device’s adoption, so detecting and eliminating those barriers is essential. As an example, ResMed’s (NYSE: RMD) human factors research revealed that even processes such as registering a new device could interrupt compliance.

“You lose health adopters every time you ask a patient or provider to perform a set-up step, select a network or flip a switch,” ResMed CEO Mick Farrell told Medical Design and Outsourcing.

ResMed connects each of its continuous positive air pressure (CPAP) sleep apnea treatment devices to the cloud before patients begin to use them. In-house research revealed that once the device gave users feedback, it improved patient compliance. Use of the company’s MyAir smartphone app helped nearly 84% of new CPAP users reach the necessary usage threshold for Medicare adherence in the first 90 days of treatment, the company’s data revealed.

Make user feedback part of the business model

User feedback can reduce user errors and improving the user experience in a way that ties a patient population to a product.

Clarify Medical believes so strongly in user feedback that it has built it into its business model. Clarify makes a phototherapy tool for treating psoriasis and vitiligo (loss of skin pigment). Activating the device puts the Clarify team in close contact with the patient through a company-based (rather than outsourced) customer care center and a smartphone app. The email and phone calls Clarify employs to train users have also led to bug fixes, app refinements, and even firmware updates. The app allows the company to monitor patient usage, and non-compliant users receive additional coaching and training.

User behavior is key

In many ways, the medtech industry is playing catch-up with consumer technology. The stakes are high, and getting the experience right is critical. Forward-thinking companies of all sizes are investing in user behavior. Consider that consumer digital health company  Livongo Health recently acquired the behavioral health-focused myStrength to add digital tools for conditions such as depression, chronic pain, and opioid addiction. Moves like this signal that designing digital devices for user behavior may be critical to the success of a home medical product.

Perhaps for the first time, the industry is seeing that in a competitive environment, focusing on user behavior is essential to innovation. While it raises the risk factor in developing medical devices, it also boosts the potential rewards. The design tips presented here are not new, but they are essential steps in gaining market share.