The Importance of Usability & Quality in Patient Healthcare Apps

Why the user experience of patient portals and healthcare apps is so much worse than mobile health apps, and what design elements need to change.

by Andrew Croce

For the health conscious consumer, there's a huge variety of commercial health apps to help keep track of things like exercise, diet, hydration, sleep, teeth-brushing, etc. If there's a health concern you can think of, there's probably an app to help you manage it.

But of course there's another side of healthcare — the less voluntary kind. We all require doctors’ visits from time to time, and many of us experience chronic health conditions which require frequent interaction with healthcare facilities and practitioners. Patient portals and healthcare service apps are becoming an increasingly normal part of those interactions. However, the quality of the patient experience with these applications seems to lag significantly behind the level of patient adoption.

Why is this the case? What makes these patient portal applications different?

Mobile health apps vs. patient portals

It is important to note a key distinction between mobile health apps and patient healthcare portals. Mobile health apps are voluntary and consumer driven — think sleep-quality tracking apps and devices. Patient portals are more compulsory and driven by the healthcare industry — think patient communication apps tied to your local healthcare system.

As a consumer, if my experience with a sleep tracking app is not to my liking, I have a choice in the matter. There are competitor products I can try instead, and the producers of these products know it. As a result, it is clear that these companies invest significantly in user research, usability, and software quality assurance.

A lack of choice

Because of the nature of the healthcare system, rarely do patients get a significant amount of choice in the matter of which doctors they see, or which hospitals they visit. This is largely dictated by our jobs, our health insurance, and our physical locale. Most of us are locked into specific, limited options. The high-demand, low-resource scenarios many people face when seeking healthcare often impose additional restrictions on our options. All of this means the technology choices we have when navigating our healthcare needs are very limited, if not completely predetermined.

Critical tasks

The tasks that patients face when using these portals, compared to mobile health apps, are usually more critical and sensitive. For example, logging in to check an important test result, or paying a claim to their provider. When people face an emergent health issue, they are not typically in the mindset of dealing with bad navigation and broken interfaces. These kinds of issues are frustrating enough in normal, non-critical scenarios -- when you're dealing with possibly life-threatening health problems, these kinds of issues can become emotionally distressing and dangerous.

Unfortunately, it's not uncommon that patients have poor experiences with healthcare portals: studies have reported users having difficulty navigating, finding medical records and test results, and understanding those results. The implications of these poor experiences are not superficial; poor access and comprehension of personal health information can lead to poor patient follow up, incomplete communication with healthcare providers, and delayed, or even improper, medical treatment.

Improvements are possible

However, improvements are possible. Studies suggest that, when a patient portal experience is optimized, the patient outcomes do actually improve. The design and implementation of patient portal software should be adapted to the needs, behaviors, and attitudes of both patients and their healthcare providers, taking into consideration key usability and technological factors [cite] such as:

  • Time constraints. Everyone is always busy, especially healthcare providers. Finding an appointment for your preferred doctor that fits your schedule can be a nightmare scenario. Improving the scheduling experience with optimized and highly usable digital tools can make this experience more efficient and less painful.
  • Technological aptitude. Most users of healthcare are not the digitally-native-born millennials who eat, sleep, and breathe apps. Healthcare portals should be designed to be as simple and responsive as possible, making it effortless for all users to access their health information.
  • Limitations to internet access. A huge portion of the world population does not live in highly urbanized centers with ubiquitous access to the internet. Healthcare communication technology should be optimized to work effectively at low bandwidth whenever possible, providing access to as many people as possible.
  • Concerns over information privacy and security. This is a big issue. Rightfully, patients have serious concerns about what happens to their health information when it lives on a digital platform. Healthcare portals should not only make sure that patient data is encrypted and private, but they should do better communicating this and reassuring users that their personal information is safe.

Focusing on designing for these critical factors, for both healthcare patients and providers, will go a long way in improving adoption, building user satisfaction, and increasing portal engagement over time. But the evidence is minimal and questions still exist about exactly what other factors will improve the user experience.

The best way to ensure a continued improvement in quality and usability in patient portals is for healthcare organizations and their stakeholders, designers, and developers to commit to user centered design, comprehensive product research, and high quality engineering. There is a lot at stake.

Interested in reading about our own expertise in healthcare apps? Check out our Picwell case study.


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