The Biggest Mistake at HIMSS?

By Bernie Zipprich

For all the talk at HIMSS last month about “patients” and “members,” one group was conspicuously missing: “consumers.” And yet, no need is greater.

At Welltok, we spend a lot of time thinking about ways we can use technology, data, behavioral science, economics and design to enable consumer healthcare experiences that are highly relevant and hyper personalized. In a word, experiences that are magnetic. So the lack of focus on consumers – that’s you and me, our friends and families – and the type of experiences we want in healthcare was inconspicuous.

But it also suggests tremendous opportunity. 

I’ve been playing a lot with a new Amazon Alexa lately and quickly finding myself becoming as reliant on it as my iPhone. “Alexa, play music.” “Alexa, what’s the weather?” “Alexa, ask Lyft to call me a ride.” Siri might have more wit and snark, but Alexa wins hands-down on her ubiquitous usefulness. What excites me most though, is that this is still only the early days of this technology. As noted in Mary Meeker’s 2016 Internet Trends Report, it was only in 2016 that natural language processing crossed the 90% reliability threshold, and so far, Alexa only has 7,000 apps or “skills” available through it. That’s comparable to the first years of the Apple app store. Imagine when it understands 99.99% of what you say and has hundreds of thousands of skills.

I mention Alexa because another big theme at HIMSS this year was the need for “empathetic design” as a guiding principle in healthcare technology, and I couldn’t agree more. Doctors, insurance companies and employers might want their respective patients and members to take certain actions to improve risk spreads and reimbursement. But what if we flipped this model on its head? What if we made it easier for consumers to make smarter healthcare decisions? We all want to feel our best, to receive good care when we need it, and to keep our healthcare costs to a minimum – so that we can focus on life. What if thought more emphatically about what technology consumers really want and need, and built it around them? Around ourselves?

My grandmother is in her late eighties with a mind that’s sharp as a tack and otherwise good health, but with poor eyesight due to the ravages of macular degeneration. A few months ago, I was having dinner at her house and her phone rang. It was an IVR call from her PBM asking if she wanted to refill a prescription. Personally, I found the call intrusive and annoying. But my grandmother? “Oh, isn’t that great? They’re going to mail it right over,” she said as she hung up the phone.

That moment taught me an important lesson:  my grandmother can’t drive and can’t use smartphone apps or the internet. She can’t even look up the pharmacy’s number to dial it herself. Yet here was a technology that I might shun for myself, that works great to ensure she gets the medicine she needs. What if all technology could be so empathetically targeted and deployed? Imagine if she could use Alexa to schedule a doctor’s appointment with physician in network, to know her co-pay ahead of time, and to call an Uber or Lyft to take her there at the appointed time?

We’re already experimenting with some of these technologies at Welltok through our partnership with IBM Watson, and recently released a new Virtual Benefits Agent product that’s generation 1 of this future. But as the experience with my grandmother showed, there’s already a ton we can do now by deploying existing technologies empathetically before we achieve a “Dr. Alexa” future.

Futurist Michio Kaku once observed that the destiny of technology “is to become invisible, that is to disappear into the fabric of our lives, to be everywhere and nowhere, silently and seamlessly carrying out our wishes.” Welltok has been talking about design empathy for over a year now, however as an industry, we have a long way to go to achieve that vision, for sure. But with consumer-centered empathetic design as the guide, the road ahead is guaranteed to be exciting.


Want more? We feel you, read what our CTO, Brian Garcia, had to say about design empathy in this MedCity News article and check out our e-book on the 5 Best Practices of Consumer Design.