Why we need a new era of consumer healthcare
The importance of product and communication
Today, most of us manage our finances online. We might log into our bank accounts to check our balances, make changes to our regular payments and apply for loans. Through the design of the system, we’re in control of our finances and manage our money ourselves. But imagine if none of this was available to us? What if we only got to see a summary of our account balances by letter and had to make an appointment with a bank manager to discuss, agree and implement any changes to our finances. As consumers, we would find this totally unacceptable, right? Yet that’s exactly how healthcare is managed today. For most people, healthcare is not a service we control or actively participate in, it feels like something that is done to us; a one-way service that we receive, and generally only when things go wrong.
A new healthcare
Part of the challenge is that healthcare systems are constantly struggling to keep up with the demands of increasing and ageing populations. In addition, growth trends in obesity, and diabetes, increasing costs driven by medical advancements and staff shortages, makes developing a consumer-facing service seem like a non-essential priority. But, in fact, tapping into the resource that exists in us – as patients, consumers, people – offers a route to better, and also more sustainable healthcare. By adopting practices that, powered by the connected data and computing power we’re surrounded by, we’ve all become experts in using, we can create a user-centric, consumer-friendly new approach to actively helping to manage our own health.
There are good examples of where this is already starting to happen. Two weeks ago, on Saturday morning, my family were surprised to find me at the kitchen table squeezing blood from my fingertip into a tiny vial. I’d ordered a home blood test through MonitorMyHealth.com, a service run by the clinical laboratory at the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS hospital trust. The service uses spare testing capacity and channels fee income from the service back into the NHS.
Having packed my filled vial and posted it back to the lab, I then received an email on Monday evening, with a link to access my results. Upon logging in, I was able to view the results, including trend comparison with those from my previous test 12 months ago, showing how changes I made to my lifestyle had affected my health metrics. I felt in control and satisfied with the service I’d accessed. More importantly, I felt engaged and invested in my healthcare.
Engagement and motivation
Whilst much of our work at KD involves innovation, design and development of the tools of healthcare – such as drug delivery devices, diagnostic instruments and therapeutic products, increasing focus centres on creating systems that “close the loop” on actionable healthcare. A recurring theme, particularly in relation to chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, relates to engagement and motivation – nudging patients towards better therapy compliance, or even better, towards better lifestyles and preventative healthcare behaviours.
The starting points and key controls in the design and development of medical devices are, rightly, clinical need, evidence-based outcomes, efficacy, safety and risk management. Often overlooked are factors that are crucial to the success of consumer products: simplicity of use, visual appeal, uniqueness, desirability, delight. Yet these are the very attributes that speak to the important “soft” sciences of motivation and behaviour change. Unlike true consumer products, no-one wants to own a blood pressure monitor, an insulin pump, or a medication monitoring app, but if they have to, they are much more likely to engage with it positively if it is as beautiful as their watch, as delightful to interact with as their smartphone, or as simple and intuitive to use as their music streaming app.
Working with regulators – the importance of communication
For a product to be successful, firstly, it must be well-executed in terms of quality and desirability provide a genuine benefit. It must also be well communicated. Even the best product in the world will not be successful if its availability, as well as its benefits and appeal, are not well communicated. This is true of medical products and services, even if the method and overtness of marketing communication is different to consumer products and services.
Take the example of 23andMe, the direct-to-consumer genetic DNA testing services, launched in 2007. Their laboratory testing technology provides consumers with access to genetic analysis, providing health, ancestry and traits insights from a saliva sample at a cost affordable to those curious and motivated to find out about their genetic make-up.
23andMe had a compelling service offer, based on groundbreaking testing technology, but how would anyone know they needed or wanted a DNA profiling test? With an aggressive marketing campaign featuring TV advertising, direct mailers and press coverage, 23andMe built a substantial market for their tests, selling half a million test kits by 2013.
That success attracted the attention of the FDA, the US medical regulatory body, who ruled that the tests which provided indications of health predispositions should be regarded as a medical device requiring validation and approval. With this threat to the growing success of their business, 23andMe realised that they had to change approach. They re-focused their communications skills from selling the test kits to ensuring that the results were able to be understood and correctly interpreted by their customer. Ultimately gaining FDA approval in 2015.
Referring to the episode in an interview with the Harvard Business Review in September 2020, CEO and founder Anne Wojicicki noted: “We couldn’t take the traditional Silicon Valley approach of iterating quickly and launching; instead we implemented a compliance system with checkpoints to make sure we met all the necessary requirements. Ultimately we focused on proving two things: that the test was valid, and that customers were capable of understanding the results we sent them.”
A complete approach
The key takeout is that to transform healthcare, we are going to need new products and services that are designed to engage and empower us all as individuals. As important as getting the products right, is getting the communication right too. Both need to work hand-in-hand, encouraging people to engage with the product or service in the first place, then ensuring that the engagement is clinically effective and safe, as well as being compelling and desirable.