Empathy leads to better experiences in health care

August 9th, 2017 / By Andy Vitale

How can user experience designers who don’t have clinical backgrounds work to create better experiences for healthcare providers, payers and patients? Design is about understanding the emotions of the user, in this case a clinician or clinical coder, when interacting with products across multiple touchpoints. Design in health care isn’t about making clinical decisions for users, it is about helping them make the right decision to improve accuracy, compliance, quality of care, or outcome by providing contextual information when needed. In order to do this successfully, designers must develop empathy for their users.

Empathy is defined as the capacity to perceive and understand the emotions, feelings and circumstances of another person. Theresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar who has done extensive research on empathy, lists four qualities of empathy: perspective taking, staying out of judgment, recognizing other’s emotions, and communicating their emotions. Taking someone’s perspective is about seeing the world from the other person’s point of view and understanding what matters to them. While it is not essential to have experienced the same pain points as those you are trying to empathize with, it is essential to understand their emotions at that particular point of their situation.

In health care, empathy is essential for many scenarios, such as times when providers try to elicit a patient’s fears and build a bond of trust in order to effectively create a plan of care that makes the patient feel confident. It leads to sharing and accountability, which are essential in building relationships that invoke emotional experiences. Empathy isn’t limited to providers and patients, however. Designers who are trying to provide solutions for multiple healthcare scenarios and user groups leverage two types of empathy. The first is affective or emotional empathy, which can be defined as the ability to subjectively experience and share a person’s feelings and respond with appropriate emotions and the desire to help. Cognitive empathy is the ability to identify and understand a person’s feelings and perspective and leverage this understanding strategically to achieve a desired result. Cognitive empathy is an active skill that is learned and refined by designers throughout their career.

Designers need to both recognize and share in the emotions of the users for whom we work with and provide solution, which in the case of health care means patients, payers and providers. Spending time with these user groups and observing them with intent allows designers to deeply understand their goals, desired results, frustrations, fears and behaviors. By developing empathy, designers will be better able to identify users’ unarticulated needs and mental models, allow more  leverage of the design process. Empathy allows more opportunities for co-creation with users, improving collaboration so that together we create and validate solutions that lead to better experiences and greater opportunities to reduce errors and achieve better outcomes.

Andy Vitale is a UX design principal at 3M Health Care.