Healthcare UX: When UX Hurts And Even Kills

Abder-Rahman Ali

What is a poor user experience (UX)?

It is usually when technology mismatches the user needs. The unfortunate truth is that healthcare is an area often suffering from such poor UX.

Healthcare UX issues impact our lives at a much deeper yet more personal level than almost any other area.

Specialized healthcare software has tended to be an area onto itself, often conservative and slow-moving. Generally when a health organization buys into an EHR (Electronic Health Record) system — and these systems are often priced in the millions — if that system shipped with little concern for usability, they are stuck with bad UX for the life of that system. There are no easy exits.

But that’s the key issue. Healthcare is a sector where poor usability isn't just an irritation — it can lead to critical medical errors and traumatic outcomes.

When was the last time you were in a hospital and did you notice the technology they were using? It no doubt varies from region to region, but there's a good chance that tech was older and less able than the system you use at home.

Each year we see tremendous technology advancements, yet these advancements often take a long time to filter through to the healthcare system. It seems they get stuck, that's all.

When Poor UX Hurts

Apart from being stuck in with old tech, systems with poor UX can hurt. This is exactly what happened with Toi Valentine, daughter of an emergency room doctor and nurse, whose parents wanted her to follow their lead in medicine, but, eventually challenged her family expectations, moving to New York City to become an interior designer.

During summers, Toi used to work at a snowboard camp in Oregon. One summer, Toi sadly had a snowboard accident, where she landed with her spine on the edge of a snowboard rail, leading her to the local hospital.

The poor UX feelings started to become clear when Toi entered the chaotic emergency room. Toi slowly came to the conclusion that players there had no idea what their roles were, or how to interact with her as a patient. She ended up in the operating room for surgery instead of going to radiology to get a basic x-ray.

Toi realized that such mistakes were not human error, but rather of design flaw.

For instance, it was the poor design of patient ID bracelets that lead to Toi being wrongly delivered to the operating room. Bad space design and planning also caused treatment delays as staff ran back and forth for supplies.

This story lead Toi into a new career as a UX designer. She recognized that design is less about making things look pretty and more about understanding user needs and behaviors.

It was patently clear that broken UX that had failed Toi was completely unnecessary.

When poor UX takes lives

Jonathan Shariat's wife, a nursing student, was sharing how passionate Jonathan was about technology in healthcare. Her teacher however held a contrary opinion and shared her story.

The patient's real name was not mentioned, but was given the name Jenny for purposes of the story.

Jenny, a little girl, had been reveiving cancer treatment for the previous four years and had been discharged. Unfortunately she relapsed, and needed very strong chemotherapy treatment.

After the medicine was administered, three nurses attend to the charting software, where they enter the required data and made the appropriate orders.

Those nurses, each with over 10 years experience, simply overlooked a very critical piece of information. Jenny was supposed to be given 3 days of I.V. hydration. Unfortunately the nurses had difficulty understanding and responding to the software interface.

Jenny died of toxicity and dehydration. She had missed her hydration for two shifts. Why? Because the nurses weren’t able to interpret information delivered by the system.


So what are these UIs like?

The first screenshot below shows a system similar to the one that Jonathan’s wife uses every day. The other two interfaces are typical of those used daily by hospital staff.

Example 1: Electronic health record

Example 2: Electronic health record

Example 3: Electronic health record

In conclusion

We all come across poor UX in our daily travels, but, when this impacts our health and wellbeing — as in the cases above — this issue has to be taken more seriously.

It would be hard to read the above two stories without feeling. I also suspect that there are many similar but untold bad UX stories out there that we never hear.

What solutions or steps do you think need to be taken towards this issue? Do you, or know anyone who suffered due to poor UX? Share your stories with us.