How good service design led to an excellent interactions with the NHS

I had an appointment at the breast clinic. It was the smoothest, least stressful experience I’ve ever had seeking healthcare.

They called it a one-stop shop. You went in and saw a doctor, had any scans needed and were told the next steps the same day. This all happened within a 1-3 hour visit.

What made it so smooth was the handoff between the various practitioners I saw.

After having my initial consultation, the doctor sent me to another room for a scan. I expected that I would need to tell the radiographer my whole life story again. Still, to my surprise, when I walked in, they had already received my notes, had read them and could relay back to me all the relevant things I had said to the doctor a few minutes earlier.

I had my scan and was sent back to the initial doctor for a debrief.

The doctor had already received my results and could tell me that I had nothing to worry about. Obviously, this is not the outcome everyone receives, and the doctor was visibly pleased that my scare was nothing to be worried about. It was comforting to have this emotion expressed by a healthcare professional. The results and the doctor’s reaction lifted my mood immensely.

How is this experience different? And why is it noteworthy?

Too often, we are left to explain our case over and over again as we are sent from pillar to post. Not just in healthcare but in other industries too. It’s surprisingly uncommon to have a joined-up service, which is why good service design is essential and can significantly impact the impression of a service and the outcome for its users.

Good service design = good business

In this experience, someone had thought through the patient experience and the supporting tools and needs of the staff delivering the service. When service users, staff and those supporting the delivery of a service are listened to through user research, they can share their expert knowledge of the pains and frustrations they face. This can and should inform and influence the design of a more joined-up experience for their users. It leads to a better experience for users, and it also makes the job of the team delivering the service easier, which can improve productivity, efficiency, and outcomes. Happier staff can lead to better services and happier users.

But how?

Quite often, we work within constraints that mean that with all the will in the world and all the insights from service users, we are hamstrung in the improvements we can make.

It’s all well and good knowing there’s an issue, documenting and socialising it within the UCD teams. Still, we also need the buy-in from senior leaders and those with technical skills to understand the systems, how they currently work and how they could work.

Some of the best teams I’ve worked with had developers and technical architects willing to attend show & tells and visit the sites their systems were being used at. They built empathy for users and often went above and beyond to implement improvements.

Sometimes, however, it’s not that simple, and there isn’t much developers can achieve independently. For example, systems that don’t talk to each other can be locked down, and it’s impossible (so I’ve heard) to open them up.

Illustrating to stakeholders the cost savings and efficiency savings an improvement can make can help drive home and get backing for the need to improve services. But, on the other hand, it may mean changing systems, which I know can be an extremely costly and sometimes prohibitive exercise.

However, showing that the improvement will reduce backlogs and lead to X% additional patients being seen is usually a good start in kicking off the conversation to get buy-in to make a change.

In my experience, the most successful technique to encourage stakeholders to be open to changes that will improve their services have been:

  • emphasising the savings that could be made
  • improved satisfaction scores
  • fewer complaints
  • building empathy through storytelling

Back to the NHS

I’m confident that the breast clinic service wasn’t always as smooth as it is now. Nevertheless, someone demonstrated the immense benefits of designing and implementing a joined-up service.

I hope other services inside healthcare and within different industries learn from their example.

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