The Role of Human-Centric Design Thinking in Healthcare

By Karin Bauer, VP Client Services, SGK Health

Healthcare is an empathy-driven industry. But as healthcare consumers seek to become more empowered, changes in healthcare information gathering and sharing across systems have created a disconnect between the quantity of information available to empower care choices and the quality of care that patients receive. To win consumer confidence in this new healthcare information age, pharmaceutical companies, medical device manufacturers, healthcare enterprises and insurers must provide brand-centered relevance, based on insight into customer behaviors, perceptions and preferences.

We recently interviewed 17 U.S. healthcare company representatives to gain their perspectives on the state of the industry, the objectives and challenges faced by marketing professionals within their organizations, and the partnerships with marketing and branding agencies that best serve their needs. Across startup, mid-sized and large healthcare enterprises, interviewees described an environment in which:

  • Systemic cost pressures are unsustainable.
  • Uncertainty about the future of the Affordable Care Act is impacting business opportunities and operating environments.
  • Fundamental fixes to the U.S. healthcare system are likely to be elusive and slow to materialize.
  • Big data abounds, but is generally underused to address these problems.
  • The term “marketing” is generally equated with pharmaceutical advertising and product packaging — not with next-generation marketing models.

To address these issues, organizations at every level recognize that they’ll need to claim a position at the leading edge of three interrelated trends:

Value-Based Healthcare. Healthcare consumers and the companies that serve them have shifted their thinking from sick care to wellness care. This shift is driving consolidation and strategic partnerships across the industry. New, outcomes-based reimbursement models and new paradigms of doctor training are leading to more patient-centric care. Yesterday’s focus was on performing procedures and prescribing medications. Today, the focus is changing to the patient’s total physical and emotional well-being.

Big Data and the Digital Health Revolution. Information accessibility and transparency is a big topic of discussion at all levels of care. Healthcare enterprises are seeking new ways to drive innovation through the customization and personalization of health and wellness data. But this trend still has far to go. Continuous feedback loops exist, and more are needed, to ensure that health data streams continue to support lower cost and improved quality of care. And beyond supporting evidence-based decision making, big data needs to provide reassurance, guidance and motivation that helps individual patients on a personal basis.

Consumerization of Care. Reimbursements are declining, leaving consumers to pay more for care. At the same time, emerging patient-centric models of physical, emotional and digital engagement are encouraging consumers to take a more active role. Consumer-centric technologies are facilitating this realignment through personalization, immediate feedback loops and instant gratification. In light of these changes, traditional authoritative marketing (“ask your doctor about …”) is losing its appeal. Consumers want to participate actively in healthcare decisions — not just be told what to do. Brands need to deliver an engaging and empowering consumer experience.

In January 2018, Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky said, “We should all be acting like Amazon’s getting into our business.”  Soon after, Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and J.P.Morgan announced the formation of an independent healthcare company for their employees.  These aren’t just random moves. They’re part of a broad convergence of consumerization, digitization and the demand for demonstrated value in delivering care that addresses the whole patient experience and the cost of care, not just the diagnosis and treatment.

We believe that human-centric design thinking can help healthcare marketers meet the needs of driving down costs, increasing the quality of care and helping companies get healthcare products to market faster. And more importantly, we believe it can empower consumers to participate fully in partnership with providers, making better decisions and committing to choices that actively improve their own health and wellness.

Toward those ends, we’ve been exploring two questions that arise from the need to achieve more value-based outcomes:

  • How can human-centric design thinking confer efficiencies into the healthcare marketing supply chain such that substantial cost savings can be realized?
  • How can human-centric design thinking help healthcare companies engage with a customer base that is increasingly value focused?

From harmonizing and optimizing workflows, to tapping into the emotional motivators that create lasting consumer connections with brands, human-centric design thinking leads to solutions that can help any company adapt and win in a changing healthcare marketplace.

So how can healthcare organizations begin to incorporate human-centric design into their healthcare marketing? First, by empathizing with consumers. Not only are they facing health challenges; they’re also being asked to pay more as deductibles have surged 67 percent since 2010 alone for employer-sponsored health plans. And they’re exposed to far more healthcare information than ever before — not all of it trustworthy. That means they’re being forced to become much more careful, discerning healthcare shoppers. Their wellness, and their pocketbooks, depend on identifying partners they can trust.

And trust isn’t strictly rational. Behavioral science shows that the choices people make are also driven by a variety of societal, emotional and psychological factors, including “adherence to social norms (‘Everyone else does the same’), maintenance of the status quo (‘I’ve developed a habit of doing this’), and psychological dependencies (‘I need it to feel good’).”  Breaking through these entrenched attitudes requires educating consumers with reliable sources of health information, empowering them with meaningful choices, and providing effective motivation for positive change.

The role of healthcare consumers is fundamentally changing. They no longer want to be regarded as passive patients — looking to the expertise of specialists to treat discrete conditions within a defined time frame — but rather as active participants in pursuit of integrated wellness, day by day.

“So who are we, patients or consumers?” asks Robert Pearl, M.D. “The reality is that on occasion we are one or the other, but most of the time, we are both.”  In this dynamic healthcare landscape, brands that have always addressed the patient side need to better engage with the increasingly savvy consumer side. They need to step out of the sterile role of unquestioned expert and into the role of a true partner for better health. They need to actively listen to the consumer and respond with solutions and support that help sustain each individual’s wellness on their own terms, in all that they do.

In short, brands need to forge emotional connections.

Successful healthcare companies put emotional connection at the core of their brand strategy, creating a value chain that extends from product development and marketing to sales and services. Everything is done with the consumer’s participation in mind and with value-based outcomes as the goal.

Fully connected and satisfied consumers who perceive brand differentiation are 52 percent more valuable, on average, compared to those who are highly satisfied but not fully connected. Compared to consumers who are not at all emotionally connected, fully connected and satisfied consumers are worth 70 percent more to the brand. Emotional connection makes a huge difference, and healthcare consumers are starved for it.

So how do great healthcare brands use emotional motivators to connect with consumers? Here are a few leaders to watch and emulate.

  • Kaiser Permanente’s Thrive campaign foregrounds active living and life satisfaction over the clinical care experience. It emphasizes connection — among the entire healthcare team and with each patient — with the goal of making healthcare fast and easy, so that patients can enjoy what really matters. The overarching message is, “Live well and thrive. We’ll take care of the rest.” That message finds expression in images of people at all stages of life simply enjoying themselves and their loved ones.
  • 23andMe takes what might be regarded as a highly technical service — revealing health risks and traits through DNA testing — and turns it into an individualized journey that promises to open new chapters in the lives of users. 23andMe motivates consumers through actual user stories (pictured above), including people who have found long-lost relatives, taken action for better health, discovered the reasons behind inexplicable behaviors and more.
  • Pfizer tells the story not only of the science behind its medicines, but also the human motivations that inspire its scientists, and the value-based outcomes that result for people who live longer, healthier lives as a result of their efforts. The Pfizer website provides information about drugs and indications, of course, but always within a context of people — from researchers and their passions to actual patients whose lives have been transformed.

These and other forward-looking healthcare companies get it right by asking the right questions. It’s not just about what a device or drug does for patients — or it’s not only about that. It’s also about the far more important questions of what individual healthcare consumers fear. What they hope for. What they dream about.

The answers to those questions will lead to the unique human connection that a brand can offer. Healthcare companies need to tap into their audience’s motivations — rational, social, emotional and psychological. To empathize and offer genuine partnership for a better, healthier tomorrow. To discover and define the brand’s true value for the people it serves.

Human-centric thinking leads to value-based outcomes: Improved lives and an admired, profitable business.



Karin E. BauerKARIN_BAUER_HR, VP, Client Services, at SGK Health, is a passionate advocate for breakthrough technologies that transform healthcare for the better. She has led in-house and agency brand strategy communications on healthcare products that have moved markets, and maintains strong ties to the research and health technology communities that are driving the future of healthcare. Trained in science and journalism, Karin discovered two developmental cancer therapies before honing her research skills to focus on telling compelling stories about products and organizations that move markets. The full title of Ms. Bauer’s article is “Achieving Value-Based Outcomes: The Role of Human-Centric Design Thinking in Healthcare.”