How medical devices can use design to boost safety and usability – Med-Tech Innovation

Lightbulb moment… ideas concept

Whether we use medical devices or not, most of us are used to being ‘assisted’ by technology. Whether it’s the phone we use to organise our lives, the specs we wear to see, or the smartwatches we use to track our fitness activities. We can’t imagine life without them.

And yet the human response to medical technology is hugely varied, with take-up and adherence a problem the world over. It’s not because the kit doesn’t work. It does ‒ medtech products have to be rigorously tested and proven to be clinically effective. But the human context isn’t always fully considered. How people interact with med-tech drops off the list of priorities as innovators and manufacturers focus on efficacy and negotiate the myriad obstacles and regulations that come with the territory.

There are major psychological and physical challenges that designers must overcome to convince people to engage with medtech. It might be that the device is complicated to use. Or that it’s cumbersome and inconvenient. Or that we fear using it incorrectly. Or that it embarrasses us. Or that it makes us feel old and sick.

It’s only by digging deep and understanding the human response that we’ll discover why people are willing to wear headphones all day, for example, but the majority of adults who would benefit from a hearing aid refuse to wear one. Or why 83% of people who are prescribed sleep apnoea machines take them off halfway through the night. Most are bulky, ugly and noisy, and annoying for patients and partners. Changing the design and the materials could improve adherence, alleviate psychological issues and improve the overall user experience. After all, it doesn’t matter how brilliant a medtech product is, if people don’t engage with it and use it properly, it’s not going to work as well as it could.

It’s the same with certain drug delivery devices. Many of them are technically confusing, scary and uncomfortable, which is concerning considering they’re administering important, often expensive medications. Solving this with a thorough consideration of design and UX factors would account for a fraction of development costs ‒ which makes the situation even more baffling.

Engagement-first thinking

This is the sweet spot where designers can step in and administer medtech CPR. Effective product design can tap into the psychology of patient behaviour and communicate medtech benefits to the end user in a creative and empathetic fashion.

Medtech should be easy to use and integrate with everyday life, like brushing your teeth or showering. It also has to be trusted and make people feel in control of their health needs, especially when there’s no healthcare professional present. And it should address any socio-situational concerns. If a medtech product looks like a piece of ‘regular’ technology instead of screaming out the word ‘assistive’, it can help smooth over associated stigmas.

Part of the problem is that for so long, people living with certain conditions have been regarded as ‘patients’ before they’re seen as ‘people’, but that’s starting to change. And with that shift in thinking comes the opportunity to use methods more commonly associated with consumer-focused products.

This move towards a more consumer-centric approach has seen us look to game-like features, behavioural science, covetable wearables: every tool in the box to create experiences to drive engagement and increase adherence. So, while headway is being made, we could do so much more ‒ it’s still not a priority for many developers.

The data-driven agenda

Some of the biggest issues today surround the collection of data. Large-scale health data has a lot of value, but there are important conversations to be had around privacy and ownership. Tracking and analysing information about a patient creates a clearer picture of that person’s health, and that information can be shared with the necessary specialists. But that needs to be conveyed to the user in the right way. Many people are genuinely and rightly concerned about data breaches, so design needs to reassure on security and make clear the benefits. 

It’s interesting to see how strong design can take a functional medical device and make it aspirational. Take sports-technology company Supersapiens – it took a continuous blood-glucose monitor developed for diabetics and transformed it into a performance-enhancing device for athletes through design, gamification and clever communication. It demonstrates the power of design and communication strategy in shifting perceptions, and reducing stigma – all while generating a plethora of data which can be helpful for clinicians, scientists and most importantly the end user.

The pandemic turbo-boosted everyone’s relationship with data collection and its uses. In the UK, an NHS contact tracing app attracted lots of criticism over privacy and technical performance. People in the USA had similar concerns. While technically more healthtech than medtech, it’s a pertinent example because the solution lay with designers. Prioritisation and analysis of user perceptions and user experience might have made it clear that major problems existed before launch.

People failing to take their medication as prescribed is an age-old problem, and the medtech industry is evolving to address that. But, as we move towards a world where people take more responsibility for their own health and wellbeing, it makes sense to invest time and energy in putting their needs first to ensure that low engagement and adherence rates become a thing of the past.