5 Ways to Engage Patients in Digital Health: Part I

I packed my bags leaving my family, a medical career and a health startup behind in Egypt and headed out to San Francisco to learn more about health innovation. As the plane took off, a flurry of questions raced through my mind regarding digital health’s future (and mine!). Can patients truly be empowered to engage in their own health decisions? Would entrepreneurs be able to make a living by providing those tools? Will highly institutionalized US health care systems allow for such a change to happen?

Being the Marketing Director for KryptonWorx, a digital health company located between Cairo and Charleston, I was forced out of my fact-based physician mindset and into a right-brained designer mentality. It is obvious that design can radically change human beings and their behavior, but what makes us want to interact with digital solutions? How do successful companies keep their patients engaged? I was determined to find out.

I interviewed two insightful and inspirational innovators in the digital health space to get answers to my questions:

  1. Lori Scanlon, the sharp VP of Marketing for PatientsLikeMe, an online solution that focuses on building game-changing bridges between patients with similar diseases, while empowering researchers with open data.
  2. Jacob Sattelmair, the highly spirited Co-Founder and CEO of Wellframe, which is revolutionizing the interactions between patients and their care managers in a very human-oriented mobile approach.

Even though the two companies focus on different aspects of the health care system, there were certain design elements that both speakers emphasized, which make their solutions disrupt the system in a meaningful way, while engaging their users.

After listening to their stories, I extracted 5 golden nuggets of wisdom essential to anyone looking to reinvent the health care experience in an engaging way.

1) Empathy: Know thy patient.

Understanding your users lies at the heart of smart design, as any design thinker would tell you. Engagement starts with what people already know and then takes them through the journey of behavioral change, not vice-versa.

As Lori eloquently puts it: “We try to understand what our patients need, where they want it and try to meet them where they are at”. PatientsLikeMe was inspired when the co-founders’ brother was diagnosed with ALS and built their first community about something they actually cared about.

In Wellframe’s case, Jacob and his team recognized that those who they could really help were high risk patients tracking specific triggers. With that problem in mind, Wellframe only reached their final product after spending months with these patients in clinical trials.

2) Positive Feedback Loops: Always have a give and take.

Defining the patients’ interactions, and identifying what they care for makes all the difference. As Dan Saffer mentions in his new book, the details within Microinteractions are what make for good digital products.

The PatientsLikeMe website prompts users to answer questions about their disease, and in return, instantly shows them how they compare to others through open and public reports. As opposed to clinical trials, where the participants rarely get any feedback, Lori stressed how PatientsLikeMe provides their users with “At least the topline results within weeks”.

Wellframe, on the other hand, focuses on collecting data from patients about their medications, activities and mental state. Wellframe then relays that information to the care manager who provides users with recommendations and personalized treatment, completing the feedback loop. “The patients understand that they could get the best care, the more you put in, the more you get out of it,” Jacob noted, “We give them that with a feedback loop that is human rather than an algorithm”.

3) Education: Humans seek knowledge and mastery.

One reason why WebMD got so popular is that it gave people the knowledge they wanted about their specific disease that was otherwise locked up in medical books. With the advancing power of medical A.I, companies are taking education a notch further, and providing patients a very personalized education.

PatientsLikeMe provides customized communities where more personalized knowledge can be found, and that knowledge is a big reason why the patients keep coming back. “I remember that one patient who was diagnosed with MS and was on Baclofen for a while, but had the problem of spasms and stiffness and he couldn’t walk too well,” Lori recounted, “ Then he found out through our charts that most patients were taking a higher dose, and once he convinced his doctor to change the dosage, his problems were solved. He could walk normally again.”

Wellframe converts the tedious educational regimen outlined by physicians to “Little pearls of information via text or personalized videos,” Jacob explained as he showed me how Wellframe breaks down the videos that are recorded by the actual Care Manager in charge of the patient. The patients are then asked a set of follow up questions to verify their learning. This gives the patient not just an engaging, but also a very personalized learning experience.

4) Social Connectivity: Finding those who understand us.

In a world where we stare at our devices more than we talk to the people around us, solutions that engage us must build on human connections that would enrich our lives – especially when it comes to health.

This is where the PatientsLikeMe forum comes into play strongly in recreating the health care experience. You can connect with, talk and compare yourself to people going through the exact same thing you are. That is very powerful.

When I asked the charismatic and energetic CEO of Wellframe about that topic, he replied: “Our whole mobile solution is based on that human interaction which solves a basic emotional need for the patient who wants to interact with the care manager on a personal basis.” Perhaps what is even more interesting is that patients have a sense of accountability because of the fact that someone is paying attention to them.

5) Canoes of data between isolated islands.

As outlined by Jonathan Bush in his recent book Where Does it Hurt?, one of the major opportunities for entrepreneurs in the digital health space is the fact that health care is like a sea of islands, where different elements are isolated and do not communicate.

PatientsLikeMe maintains its viability as the data link between patients with similar diseases, and between patients and researchers. This allows it to build a business model around pharmaceutical companies that wish to conduct customized studies, while providing the research community with a vast open sourced pool of data.

The basic premise of Wellframe lies in its ability to enable the patients to share their data with care managers and receive personalized feedback in return.

Despite the clichés that claim that “there is no formula” for designing an engaging solution, there are unquestionably certain elements that hold true regardless of company size or domain.  Developing a patient-centered solution that connects, informs and provides feedback will always capture the patients’ hearts if the creator looks through their lens first.

In fact, after reflecting upon the power of these 5 nuggets, I found that these elements of design applied generally across a wide range of life experiences. As I will illustrate in Part II of this series, these nuggets still hold value whether it’s in a medical tent in the Egyptian Revolution or in a Yoga session at Burning Man.

Omar Shaker completed medical school in Egypt, followed by internships in the US. He soon left primary care for the world of digital health, moving to San Francisco to work on his own projects. These posts represent his reflections on a series of interviews he conducted with some of the more exciting entrepreneurs working in digital health today. Omar can be reached at  shaker118@gmail.com.  


Omar is a physician, writer and data analyst. After realizing the potential of exponential technologies to reshape the inefficiencies of healthcare, he left medicine and moved to San Francisco to immerse himself within the network of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, while working on technology projects of his own. Omar frequently writes for Health 2.0 News while consulting major organizations with the Healthcare Practice of Clarity Solution Group. View all posts by OMAR SHAKER →

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