Embracing Empathy: A Practical Example in a Healthcare Information Exchange

By Lisa Helminiak

February 12, 2013

How one organization took the time to understand – and design for – the emotional needs of its users.

In design thinking, empathy for the end user underlies almost every decision we make. But empathy is not an instinctual point of focus for many organizations. People developing products tend to jump right into “cool” new features, rather than “waste time” pondering the deepest hopes and fears of their users. At Azul Seven, we work hard to show our clients the value of time spent understanding those feelings; how it will lead to better, more successful products because instead of just being “cool”, your new features will fill a real need that’s being ignored by current offerings.

A practical application of this concept jumped out at me while attending a dHealth D.C. event last month, hosted by Sapient in Washington. Richard Singerman, PhD, Chief Innovation Officer at TrustNetMD gave a presentation titled “Increasing collaboration and efficiency through advanced knowledge sharing tools”. He discussed his newly funded clinical trial in which a social network-like site will be used amongst radiology professionals to collaborate on best practices, ask questions and share insights. For example, he explained, different radiologists may use their own preferred radiation dosages on child patients, which can vary dramatically. What’s the norm? Is it possible to reduce those dosages? The information is out there in the minds of some, but the transfer of ideas seems to be blocked in the radiology community.

What struck me most during the discussion was the stream of empathy Dr. Singerman’s team followed in developing their new tool, starting with a simple observation: many doctors have egos. Not a new theory by any means, but it may be the key to understanding how knowledge is shared, or not shared, between medical professionals today, and help lead to a solution.

Dr. Singerman’s understanding of the implications of ego is twofold. For one, he considers how it might influence a doctor’s behavior when it comes to knowledge sharing. Doctors may feel hesitant to collaborate with others for several reasons. What’s the personal benefit? What if someone else takes credit for the idea? But because praise and recognition can be so hugely appealing to the ego, the trial tool includes votes up for the best ideas in the crowd and prominent stats and displays showing each doctor’s credibility based on the quality and frequency of their participation.

On the other hand, Dr. Singerman also considers how the ego might influence the behaviors of those who work with the doctors. He asked the crowd how likely we thought it might be for a nurse or a radiology technician to raise her hand in objection to 20 doctors standing in a room. Not likely at all. Knowing that, the online environment creates a level playing field where all radiology professionals can offer honest thoughts without fear of offending the egos that may exist in their physical workplace.

Fear, judgment, competition, jealousy, lack of confidence, need for praise. At first these human emotions seem better suited to a psychology discussion than technology for radiology professionals. But by embracing empathy, Dr. Singerman’s team was able to create a system that may ultimately fill a huge industry need—the efficient exchange of quality medical knowledge—by first considering some basic emotional needs.

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