Why Healthcare Needs Empathy for All

5 min readJan 31, 2024

Digital healthcare solutions designed around empathy for both the patient and the provider ensures that everyone’s needs are met.

The ability to deliver world-class care to patients ultimately comes down to one thing: empathy. But often when we hear about the need for empathy in healthcare, that empathy is directed solely towards the patient. While that’s obviously important, patients aren’t the only people in the modern healthcare experience with whom we as product designers need to empathize.

Digital healthcare solutions designed around empathy for both the patient and the provider ensures that everyone’s needs are met.

Want to improve patient care? Start by designing better tools and workflows for providers.

A few years ago as part of a complex healthcare engagement, I shadowed a clinical pharmacist as she completed her rounds and daily tasks. I was shocked to find her using seven different software systems to reconcile a single patient’s prescriptions.

All seven systems presented similar medication data in different formats with varying degrees of accuracy and timeliness. To try to speed things up, she created extensive workarounds involving several laptops, numerous printed medication lists, and an elaborate coding system with multi-colored pens and icons of her own design.

The process took upwards of 20 minutes for each patient she served. It was easy to see the digital tools that were intended to help her were crushing her productivity and generating more work and increasing patient risk.

Is this the future of healthcare?

The healthcare industry has developed a taste for human-centered design in an effort to improve patient experiences. We know improved experiences are desperately needed, but it’s problematic that the design work has centered almost entirely around the patient.

By interpreting human-centered design exclusively as patient-centered design, the industry ignores the other critically important people in the equation: providers and clinical staff. The feelings, behaviors, and emotions of these individuals determine the care that patients receive. Empathy is a pay-it-forward thing. How thorough, calm, or empathetic can a physician, nurse, or receptionist be towards their patient if their environments and tools continuously cultivate stress and create friction for them?

As a patient, it’s usual to feel the effects of design problems. We sit silently while our doctors distractedly try to navigate their EMR systems. We wait and wait as pharmacists lose their patience with needlessly complex data systems. We all give the front desk person that look when they ask for the same information they always ask for.

It doesn’t have to be this way

To improve patient experiences, one of the best things we can do is design systems that take the friction out of clinical workflows for providers and staff. To do that, we must truly understand their needs.

The digital tools used in clinics and hospitals today were designed from an inside-out perspective that prioritized existing data resources, rather than users’ needs. The systems look and behave as if developers and engineers built them while sitting in a conference room ticking off wishlists given to them by the purchasers — not the providers. The developers may have had conversations with a physician or two, but they didn’t gain true empathy for the end users.

Not only that, but doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals are drowning in data. From patient portals to EMR systems to wearables, providers today have access to more data than ever before. But all that data is only useful if doctors know what to do with it. According to a recent Harris poll, seventy one percent of doctors in America said the sheer volume of data they’re expected to manage is an overwhelming burden.

When I talk about gaining empathy, I’m not referring to a client advisory group, surveys, phone interviews, and not focus groups. These activities tend to be empathy theater and do not give you a true sense of what is happening inside of a healthcare system.

Instead, you need to go into the field and spend time with healthcare professionals to understand what happens in their day to day. When we approach a design challenge in this way, we can understand where the bar should be set. Then we can enable exceptional care by creating systems and tools for the healthcare providers and staff who actually use them.

Circling back to the pharmacist example from earlier, that’s exactly what we did.

Uncovering and removing friction through empathy

By spending time observing her in her environment conducting her daily work, I uncovered many startling problems. The labor-intensive, pieced together system she’d created on her own resulted in a ton of latency issues. But the reason she relied on that system in the first place was because there wasn’t a singular tool that could do everything she needed it to. She needed multiple laptops just to access the hospital’s pharmacy inventory and compare what medications each patient was taking at the same time.

After gaining empathy for her complicated and nuanced situation, the team reimagined the experience based on her actual needs. The result was a tool with an aggregated view of everything she needed to see in one place. Empathizing with her didn’t only impact the system experience though. It also led to entirely new feature sets and a rearchitected back-end as well. None of that would have been achieved had we not gone out into the field to observe her.

Final thoughts

While it may at times be tempting to rely on things like surveys or focus groups to get into the mind of our users, it’s much more effective to be in the field, observing them and their work. But it’s also crucial to understand exactly with whom we should be empathizing. All too often, the focus is placed on empathizing with the patients in a healthcare engagement. Their experience is of course important and is the reason we do the work that we do. But the quality of their care is ultimately determined by how well we as product designers empathize with those providing that care. The better we understand their needs, the smoother we can make their work in providing world-class care to their patients.

Original post here.

Authored by Denny Royal.




Blending strategic insights and thoughtful design with brilliant engineering, we create durable technical solutions that deliver digital transformation at scale