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The Sociocultural Megatrends Transforming Healthcare

“Medical is the most conservative category,” designers often say, and for decades this was true. Strict regulation, demanding users, and high stakes meant that change in the healthcare field was slow and steady, and new innovations could take years to reach market.

But even the healthcare industry isn’t immune to change. The mobile apps, online communities, wearable devices, and embedded intelligence that are reshaping how we work, play, travel, and communicate have also been transforming personal healthcare.

Today we have access to medical tools once reserved for professionals, and to information and digital platforms that let us shape our healthcare experience to an unprecedented degree. As designers who’ve worked with medical clients for decades, we’ve never seen a time of more dramatic change.

The Four Biggest Shifts in Medical Product Design

Late last year we introduced the ten sociocultural megatrends (called “mega” because they’ll continue to play out over the next five to ten years) that are reshaping product design. We split that analysis into two posts — Five Global Megatrends Reshaping Product Design and Five More Global Megatrends Reshaping Product Design — that are worth reviewing for anyone whose business depends on customer experience.

To understand their implications for the healthcare space, we’ve examined each megatrend through a lens of medical and wellness consumer experience. In many cases, their impact is already evident, usually in small startups offering new services, or existing products and services that are becoming more widely accessible.

Through this exercise, we’ve singled out four profound shifts in the field and described them here, along with current examples and links to the megatrends that underlay them.

Shift #1: ‘Healthcare Consumers’ Replace Patients

The single biggest change coming for healthcare will be in the relationship between patient and provider.

In the traditional model, everything went through the doctor. Your doctor (or nurse practitioner) was the gatekeeper to your care, and the sole trusted source of your medical information. You wouldn’t go anywhere else looking for a diagnosis or course of treatment, and if a treatment didn’t work, you’d return to the doctor to try another, or you’d find a new doctor. You trusted doctors’ input and care plans.

The single biggest change coming for healthcare will be in the relationship between patient and provider.

In the new model, we’re consumers — engaged and empowered to optimize our own healthcare experience. We know how many steps we’ve taken and calories we’ve burned, using wearables like FitBit and tracking software like Lose It! We’re tracking sleep patterns too, using an app or wearable like the Dreem band. We’re able to set our own goals as part of a long-term wellness plan we’ve helped develop. These goals place our mental health on equal footing with our physical health. Health is a service with many providers, and the doctor is just one of them.

The Healthcare Consumer shift reflects two larger trends: the focus on wellness as a continuous pursuit, and the belief that every consumer deserves a unique experience. The products and services enabling the shift are embraced at a large scale because they’re responsive, customizable, and well-designed — qualities often missing in traditional healthcare.

Bottom Line: The Healthcare Consumer is engaged and empowered to optimize their own healthcare experience. The megatrends driving this shift are Everyday Wellness and Consumer Remapped.

Shift #2: Anytime, Anywhere Solutions

Many aspects of wellness and medical treatment don’t need to take place in a medical environment, and third-party providers have recognized this and begun offering well-designed alternatives.

Today it’s not uncommon for the busy patient/consumer to take advantage of convenient solutions that fit their schedule — to make a medical appointment using an online scheduler like Zocdoc, get a flu shot at CVS or even their office, or engage in talk-therapy via a text app like Talkspace — all without ever walking into a hospital or clinic. Even when you do need to see a doctor, it’s quite possible the relationship was mediated by a third party like Healthgrades, which provides online reviews of medical providers.

These services are a natural outcome of the push to use technology to detach services from specific times and places, and to give consumers the flexibility to fit them into highly mobile lives. After all, if banking and food shopping can move online, why not healthcare?

Bottom Line: Anytime, Anywhere Solutions are detached from specific times and places (and away from traditional medical environments), and they flex to fit into consumers’ highly mobile lives. The megatrends driving this shift are Quest for Convenience and Connection/Disconnection.

Shift #3: Expectations for Seamless Experiences

In the future world of self-diagnosis and new technologies, you might expect the healthcare experience to become more fragmented, but it’s not. Instead, these innovations act to tie different elements together by putting all the tools and information in the patient’s hands.

Set up your own profile in a user-friendly patient portal like SimplePractice that pushes your information to the office staff, nurses, and physician assistants you spend the most time with. Monitor your father’s irregular heartbeat using an app like KardiaMobile, which takes readings from a small, finger-mounted electrode and sends medical-grade EKGs to his cardiologist thirty seconds later.

Sometimes you don’t need to see a doctor in person, so you request an on-demand video visit via a service like JeffConnect. Or you skip the doctor entirely, diagnosing yourself through an AI-enabled assistant like Ask Aysa. If you go in for surgery, a digital assistant like Stryker Joint Coach and Recovery Coach speeds your recovery. These are all tools in your healthcare toolkit.

In the traditional healthcare model, each service would be handled by a different provider, who would rarely connect or share information with each other. The onus is on the patient to act as messenger, shuttling information back and forth while spending hours in waiting rooms. In the new, technology-mediated model, where companies are taking into account the patient experience — and not just product functionality — seamless healthcare becomes a real possibility for the first time.

Bottom Line: Healthcare consumers increasingly expect a seamless experience across digital and in-person interactions. The megatrends driving this shift are Experience More and Empowered Individual.

Shift #4: Personalized Treatment for Better Outcomes (We Hope)

Nothing is more personal than your health, so why should healthcare treat all of us the same? The “chat for five minutes and prescribe a pill” approach makes no sense to patients in an era where they have access to so much data about themselves, up to and including their genome.

Foundation Medicine, for example, uses genomic testing to match cancer patients to the specific treatments most likely to be effective, while “whole body” clinics like Parsley Health leverage a wide range of nutrition, lifestyle, and test data to offer healthcare that’s truly customized to each patient.

The “chat for five minutes and prescribe a pill” approach makes no sense to patients in this era.

For the patient, much of this information and insight is available directly. You can arrive at a doctor’s appointment with a likely diagnosis, obtained from an AI-based predictive service such as Babylon Health, ready to ask informed questions about courses of treatment. And you can take advantage of a growing array of health data services, like Seqster, promising to bring all this information together, and place it under your control.

The end result will go beyond just making you more aware of your health details. It will also allow you to make smart decisions about the kind of healthcare you want, and provide the information and tools to make it happen.

Bottom Line: Patients expect personalized treatments based on their needs and lifestyle, and on their specific health data. The megatrends driving this shift are Radical Personalization and Search for Authenticity.

Implications for Brands and Manufacturers

For companies that work in the healthcare space, the rapid pace of these changes might feel overwhelming, but they’re far from mysterious. To successfully navigate them, it’s crucial to acknowledge that, first, your customers and competitors tomorrow may be very different from the ones you’re encountering today, and second, the products and services you offer will be used in a wider range of environments and contexts than they are currently.

Specifically, there are a few long-held assumptions that are becoming less relevant by the day:

• Old Assumption: Healthcare is based in the clinic and the hospital.
• New Reality: Healthcare happens everywhere.

Established medical brands face challenges from new entrants eager to move wellness out of its traditional venues, but there are also big opportunities to improve efficiency, service levels, and health outcomes. That said, established firms likely have an edge in the “integration race” since they own multiple points in the ecosystem.

Data is the new healthcare currency, and patients will be producing a lot of it. By taking advantage of IoT devices, real world evidence, and AI-enabled analysis, providers can target treatments far more accurately, creating massive savings while delivering better health.

It’s crucial to look at the long-term patient journey and find ways to address healthcare beyond the hospital or clinic, which may result in new service offerings.

• Old Assumption: Medicine is an exclusive, highly regulated club.
• New Reality: Medicine can be disrupted by new services and empowered users — just like everything else.

A patients gain more control over their own healthcare journey, traditional power dynamics in medical relationships can quickly shift. Established brands that anticipate this can get ahead of the shift, by finding ways to make their product give patients a sense of greater control, so they don’t feel a need to go elsewhere. Regulation, too, may cease to be the hard stop it once was. When healthcare services become consumer products, clinical trials may become less relevant.

• Old Assumption: The hospital is the primary customer for medical products and services.
• New Reality: The patient is the customer, and increasingly expects a consumer version of medical products and services once reserved for professionals.

Medical brands and manufacturers that have spent years learning about the needs and motivations of hospitals and physicians will need to become experts on the needs of another group: their patients. Since patients will increasingly be making decisions about what products and services to use, it’s important to take their needs into account when designing the next generation, and focus on making benefits apparent to the non-medical professional.

The upside of all this change is that it’s affecting everyone, including your competitors. So while these shifts might threaten established players that adapt too slowly, they also offer opportunity to those who stay ahead of the curve. There’s nothing magical about updating a consumer offering, even in the medical industry. But it does take the boldness to embrace a healthcare industry that’s not quite so conservative anymore.