How human-centered design enables federal health agility during COVID-19

Over the past year, COVID-19 reshaped our world, causing federal health care leaders to bend, swerve and adapt to new conditions. This dramatic shift put the importance of human-centered design into sharp focus.

A survey of more than 10,000 nurses found burnout among nurses jumped from 4% to 18% six months after the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. Overcrowded hospitals, overworked staff and targeted cybersecurity threats had healthcare leaders seeking emerging technologies to meet surging demands, reduce administrative burdens and focus on patient care.

While many organizations quickly modernized their existing IT infrastructure, the pandemic required more than effective technology. It also tested their cultures, and it’s not surprising that agile and human-centered organizations transitioned more successfully.

Understanding the impact of human-centered design

Human-centered design (HCD) is a problem-solving approach that involves putting the perspectives of the human — be it the customer, consumer, or end-user — at the center of every decision. While the goal is to make an organization more productive, accessible for its employees and reduce the stress for clients, HCD ensures the sum of the customer experience fosters empathy and connection throughout every touchpoint of the customer journey. It is all about people and understanding their needs and expectations.

As a working example of HCD, federal health agencies required a well-orchestrated symphony of people sharing information to ensure a functional system for COVID-19 response at the federal, state, local and community levels. Whether expediting provider enrollments or payments for uninsured patients or distributing vaccines, the patient had to be kept at the forefront of every decision. This is necessary to achieve the most desirable individual health outcome, which ultimately contributes to long-term community or population health benefits.

A digital-first, human-centered approach to addressing the pandemic helped connect people with technology, encouraging agencies to more efficiently communicate with stakeholders in a manner consistent with their demands. By communicating openly with constituents, agencies better understand the challenges, goals, needs, behaviors and emotions from the population’s perspective. A necessary change was to involve end-users from the start and place them at the center of the problem-solving design process.

Yet some agencies fall into the trap of looking purely at upgrading technology and don’t consider HCD a requirement. Internally focused technology implementations fall flat when the end users and consumers are not engaged.  Embarking on an agile transformation can be challenging and time-consuming, but health care-focused organizations that refer to the human perspective tap into a valuable resource for modernizing legacy technologies, addressing growing volume and simplifying processes. Agencies that prioritize this mindset can evaluate what level of support stakeholders need during the pandemic and beyond, leading to cost reduction, better preparation for future risks and challenges, greater employee and constituent satisfaction, and building an acceptance of change and confidence for uncovering problems before they emerge.

Putting HCD in action

Taking a tailored approach to HCD is essential–which is why all organizations should consider the following three-step process to implement an HCD culture successfully.

First, gain executive support by educating senior-level and C-suite executives on the requirements for transitioning. Ensure their approval and consent throughout the entire process–and the necessary financial support to make this switch. Cultural transformation needs to happen at all levels of the organization.

Second, identify key user personas and create a map outlining their desired journey. Have a clear understanding of each persona and their typical user experience. Engage the users if possible and garner their input. For example, if a medical provider was trying to access a Medicare claim status or information on how to code and submit a procedure for payment properly, what would their experience look like? Could they successfully—and quickly—find what they were looking for?

Third, after creating journey maps for stakeholders, it’s time to put things into motion by investing in opportunities and transforming existing culture. Ensure the organization invests in options that put users first and establish the necessary environmental and technological conditions to support them. For example, agencies should utilize advanced data analytics platforms and modern emerging technologies like application processing interface (API) and robotic process automation (RPA) to develop predictive models that enable interventions and outreach before experiencing a health-related problem.

Investing in the right opportunities delivers patient-first outcomes and guides employees to move forward with HCD. By re-thinking and re-engineering processes throughout the organization, agencies can continue evolving and preparing for future challenges.

Thriving in an HCD environment short- and long-term

By instilling this new HCD mindset, agencies enable health organizations to improve lives and communities, bridging the economic divide to empower every patient to manage their health.

The COVID-19 pandemic offers a microscopic view into how HCD can transform health, but the relevance of this mindset change will stretch far beyond the current crisis. Over the last decade, we’ve witnessed seismic changes with the federal government, including the historic passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, the shift from a fee-for-service model to a quality-of-care approach, rapid introduction of emerging technology and increased adoption of digital health and precision medicine. This continued momentum and the recent adoption of HCD by federal agencies as the catalyst provide an even greater opportunity to transform healthcare.

Agencies must remain flexible in today’s fast-paced landscape and should consider these three steps to embark on their own agile and HCD transformations and be adequately prepared moving forward.

Andrew Conn is vice president and chief operating officer of National Government Services.

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