A people-first approach to implementing digital health innovation

Article by Ahsan Sadiq & Sabrina Atwal,

Sabrina Atwal Public Relations & Communications (www.sabrinaatwal.com

Across the health sector and beyond, there’s enthusiasm about the potential for artificial intelligence (AI) and digital tools to transform healthcare for the better. There’s no shortage of problems to solve: rising costs, administrative burdens, staffing shortages, and access gaps are all challenges many believe can be alleviated by innovative combinations of data, computation, and automation.

But for all the promise of “digital health” – a general term for the landscape where health and technology intersect – technological innovation is not a magic bullet. Each innovation requires its own thoughtful implementation, with an awareness of the human context into which it is being introduced.

For all the undue hype of some technological innovations, in health care new tools truly do offer benefits worth getting excited about – from improving data management and dismantling access barriers to freeing up healthcare workers’ time for direct patient care by relieving them of paperwork. Incorrectly assuming end users will see the merits of new tools on their own – and adopt them seamlessly – can mean that promising innovations don’t realize their potential. Those who see the promise of digital health know unrealized potential is a high price to pay.



What is digital health?

The definition of this rapidly growing sector is constantly changing. Hearing the term, some people will picture patients accessing care through digital tools like video chats, while others might envision time-saving tools for doctors and clinics, and still others might imagine powerful computers crunching huge datasets to enable more personalized medicine.

In fact, all these factors are part of digital health – and understanding the variations in how people define it is vital to those who want to help people and systems unlock the benefits of digital tools. Physicians need to understand what the implementation of digital health innovations means for their patients and practices. And patients need to understand what digital health innovation can mean for their ability to access care, while also understanding how their health data might be shared, and by whom. Considerations like these are why clear communication, marketing, and launch strategies are vital to ensuring effective adoption of new tools.



What is innovation?

Innovation also means different things to different people – from incremental improvements to drastic overhauls. Healthcare is an area of constant innovation due to scientific advances; the addition of digital tools to the mix adds a new dimension and accelerates change. But while innovation in general can deliver enormous benefits, it’s important for leaders and product developers to be thoughtful about the number and types of changes clinicians and patients are asked to navigate. If physicians, for example, find themselves adopting multiple new tools and systems simultaneously, the result might be burdensome – even if each individual tool has merit.

It’s wise to be wary of change for change’s sake. Each innovation should have a clear purpose and a demonstrable benefit to users (without undue burdens when it comes to adoption). And each innovation should be accompanied by a clear communication, marketing, and launch strategy to help users understand how to adopt the innovation – and why they should.

How to communicate about the implementation of digital transformation

When it comes to digital transformation in any healthcare organization, your strategy is only as good as your ability to communicate it. A foundational step toward implementation is to recognize the complexities of the healthcare system and, more importantly, the people and processes that keep it all together. Carefully planned user education and training should be central priorities – not an afterthought.

Not everyone perceives new innovations as positive, or easily understands the opportunities digital health tools can offer (in addition to specific concerns about technology, simple resistance to change is a near-universal human quality.) Marketing and communication strategies should anticipate skepticism and objections from some audiences, and be prepared with responses to specific queries. Having clear answers to predictable concerns early can make life easier for everyone. For example, it should be easy for users to learn how data privacy and security will be managed and where they can get support if they run into obstacles.

Just as resistance is predictable, so is enthusiasm. Identify advocates and ambassadors, and set up teams to help with education and implementation. Make sure those teams are accessible and well resourced with time and training techniques, so they’re able to help their colleagues feel supported in adopting changes.


People-first communication

Ultimately, people are at the centre of healthcare. At a minimum, communications should be user-friendly and easy to understand – showing clear relevance for intended audiences. For example, are you using scenarios and examples that let clinicians and patients see themselves benefiting from a new way of working and providing care? Or are you simply setting out a series of facts or statistics, hoping they will see the potential of a proposed change as clearly as you do?

People vary widely in how they absorb new information. Not only do people in general have different levels of education and language proficiency, even among those with advanced; their motivation to embrace your messaging will vary. Everyone appreciates brevity, simplicity, and communications centering on their needs.


The role of Social Values

To go a step farther in supporting the development of effective messaging, it can be extremely useful to understand how different users understand and relate to change and innovation.

Social Values (also known as psychographics) are an individual’s fundamental mindset and motivations, shaping the way they see the world and reflecting their deepest priorities and most strongly held beliefs. Social Values shape day-to-day lifestyle choices and aspirations for the future. They set the context for people’s reactions to situations, people, events, opportunities, and challenges in their roles as consumers, employees, investors and citizens. This is where MDConnect and PatientConnect add value: Environics’ Social Values-based segmentation of physicians and patients across Canada.

When it comes to healthcare, for example, understanding a person’s Social Values can indicate whether they’re likely to defer to their doctor as an authority figure or see their doctor as a partner in a shared (and egalitarian) quest for health. PatientConnect applies a Social Values lens to individual Canadians’ perspectives on health, while MDConnect applies the Social Values lens to understand how physicians approach healthcare and interact with patients is the basis of MDConnect.


Marketing versus communications

Whatever you want to communicate to users, first you need to get their attention through marketing. In healthcare settings, marketing often means finding ways to show patients, clinicians, and clinical staff why they should care what you have to say.

For example, you might start by getting clinicians interested in how their daily workflows could be improved by a new technology; once their interest has been piqued, they’re likely to be more interested in the tool itself (what it is, how to use it, and so on).

Potential users can be engaged in a range of ways, such as posters, emails, testimonials, video messages, and more. One especially powerful tool to get potential users on board is “social proof”: there is no better advocate for a digital product than users themselves who are experiencing (and finding value in) the benefits. Ask teams to share their feedback, use their experiences in communications materials. Don’t ignore challenges; users can offer vital input on improving the tools – and working together to address these can not only improve the product but strengthen users’ sense of ownership and investment in the tool.

A phased approach to implementation is not only an effective way to address errors as they arise, but also an opportunity to communicate about any changes you’re making. Celebrate small wins, and allow users to be a part of the evolution of the product by asking for their input and showing you are attentive and responsive to their feedback when possible.

Finally, remember that communications should never be an afterthought when implementing digital health tools. Your communications teams should not only be called in when it’s time to deploy the tool(s). To maximize your chances of enthusiastic adoption and successful use, communications expertise should be an integral consideration to how you build, test, deploy, and maintain the innovation.

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