Application building for dummies: Filling unmet medical needs

Photo: fdecomite/Flickr

What do you invest in if you’re a venture capitalist looking for the next big thing? I’d invest in a company that makes it easy to create your own healthcare mobile apps. Think: the WordPress of health care applications.

I believe this is an important unmet need in medicine. As a market analyst specializing in healthcare IT, I’ve supported physicians who have an idea for an application and are trying to make it a reality. Their goals vary widely, ranging from improved communication with patients to enhanced health data analytics for decision support to streamlined workflow using administrative shortcuts.

All of these disparate ideas face a common bottleneck: the physician’s inability to quickly embody an idea as a software prototype. Naturally, many physicians lack the necessary experience with software development. While some institutions, like Children’s, are making funding and resources available, the opportunity to test that initial “seed” of the idea – before seeking any outside help — would allow the idea to grow and prove itself. A simple, “plug and play” way to prototype a new tool and let it be tested within an hour of idea conception would empower physicians and let them take risks.

Because it’s physicians and other practitioners who should ultimately be the designers of the apps. Other healthcare stakeholders may offer interesting perspectives, but there is no one who understands the problems better, or is in a better position to intuit a solution, than those who see the problems up close every day.

For the same reasons, patients – especially those with chronic diseases — should also be enabled to design and develop applications that help to manage their care.

The faster new applications can be created, the more unmet needs can be solved. Although application development requires nowhere near the resources needed to prototype a new medical device, the process is neither free nor instantaneous. Applications are still somewhat difficult to prototype, and the design process is always informed by prototyping, especially when testing can occur in the clinical setting and when the prototype can be quickly iterated based on user feedback.

Some software tools are already available, some open-source and some commercial, for prototyping applications for web, mobile and tablet devices. Balsamiq is a basic example; it allows you to create rough-looking screen layouts, share them with colleagues and users, and collect feedback. Some tools even go so far as to provide interactive layouts (Axure) without the user needing any background in coding.

These tools, however, are still very broad in their scope and possibilities, offering almost too many bells and whistles. Broadness and flexibility may be ideal for a freelance professional designer who’s looking to explore concepts across industries and with multiple clients. But for a physician looking to turn a pencil sketch into a simple electronic questionnaire, these products can still be daunting.

What can we do about it? Well, perhaps we can distill healthcare application needs into a series of standard elements that become swappable “modules” in a prototyping environment. We could also contextualize the prototyping tool by recognizing the actors (providers, patients, families) and elements (prescriptions, procedures, etc.) of the healthcare industry, providing a much simpler platform for physicians to quickly carve out an idea.

As always, the true innovation will occur when someone breaks out of the “modules” and creates something completely new. But everyone needs tools to innovate, and by providing that first set of building blocks we could open the door to brand new ideas. If we let the physicians and patients stop worrying about whether the building block should be square or rectangular, they can jump right into architecting their masterpiece.

Thank you to Katharine Schon for providing context to understand existing applications for designers.

  • I’d be interested to hear the types of medical apps that you think doctors would make if they have what you describe.

  • John: thanks for your comment. I see all sorts of ideas in the categories of EMR and PHR, informatics tools, crowdsourcing, direct-to-consumer health, practice management, clinical decision support, telemedicine and remote monitoring, intrahospital communications, and more. I can contact you offline for a follow-up discussion if you want specific examples.