How Restyling the Mundane Medical Record Could Improve Health Care

The results of a contest sponsored by the White House shows how powerful a dose of design can be in treating what ails our medical system.

Electronic medical records (EMR) are extremely useful tools and can help improve patient care and reduce costs — if designed and used properly. Unfortunately, good design is hard to come by in this market. Health IT data standards, privacy laws, and impenetrable health systems complicate an already challenging design process and usually lead to lackluster products.

One of the glaring problems is that it can be difficult for patients to gain access to their medical records. In an effort to combat this problem, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) developed a program called "Blue Button," a feature of VA EMRs that allows patients to download their results.

The program has been a huge success since its launch in August of 2010, with over 500,000 patients in the VA system using the service. The Blue Button functionality has since rolled out to Medicare patients and even private insurers like United Healthcare are in the process of implementing it.

Only one problem: Its output looks horrible.

Ryan Panchadsaram, a Presidential Innovation Fellow and former startup founder organized a competition with the goal of making Blue Button more than a tool for access, but one that would give patients actionable information, stat.

"We were inspired by the creativity of designers, their ability to take something that exists, transform it, and make it more valuable and usable," says Panchadsaram. "Our hope was to challenge some of the best across the country to take the simple text health record and create a better patient experience by improving the layout and applying a layer of visual design."

"We have assembled a showcase of the top entries that challenged the status quo for the entire health community to be inspired by and learn from," he explains. "Our next step is for the curators to select a final design (that may combine elements from various submissions) to be built and open sourced on the code-sharing site GitHub. Our objective is to build the Bootstrap for the patient health record. With these tools, electronic health record software companies across the country should be able to integrate the final design into their products and contribute to the open-source project."

The competition had four goals:

  • Improve the visual layout and style of the information from the medical record

  • Create a human-centered design that makes it easier for patient to manage their health

  • Enable health professionals to more effectively understand and use patients' health information

  • Help family members and friends care for their loved ones

In the end, 230 individuals and groups responded, and were evaluated by design experts from the government and design worlds, including renowned pixel surgeon Nicholas Felton.

Even though the designers worked independently, certain themes carried through many of the winning entries. iPhone and iPad apps were seen as natural evolution of EMRs even though few exist today. Overall health "scores" presented as a number inside of a circle were also popular, as well as including photos of the patients and their caregivers, a design feature common in social services, but almost unheard of in EMRs. Designers can't replace doctors, but they have produced a clear prescription for better tools.
Author: Joseph Flaherty

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