By Justin Kunkel | 2018 DHIT Summit Blog Post

My mechanic sends me handwritten postcards. When my car is due for service, one pops up in the mail, with a description of the work that might be necessary based on the notes from my last service appointment. He texts me too. Well, he doesn’t. But a robot pretending to be him does. After he’s seen the car, I always get a call asking about my service experience. A few months back, I found a screw in my tire on the worst possible day. He bumped other work to get me fixed up while I grabbed breakfast next door. He’s flexible about how and when he’ll accept payment.

I am engaged in the maintenance of my car, because my mechanic makes it easy for me to be so.

I am not engaged in my dermatological health. Do you know why?

In February of 2017, I scheduled a dermatologist appointment. For the following September. I forgot about it, as you do when you schedule things eight months out. I didn’t realize I had missed it until May 2018, when I called to reschedule.

“We have an appointment available Wednesday at 9:30,” the scheduler said.

“Oh, bad luck, I have a meeting.” I responded. “What else do you have.”

“Well, let me see… then you’re into January.”

Yes, I know the stakes are higher. I know that I should be more engaged in the health of my skin. But if those of us working to move healthcare forward rely on the gravity of the subject matter to reach patients, we’re not going to have impact. People don’t do what they should do unless it’s made easy for them. As a designer, I tell people my job is to make it easy for people to do the right thing. An important part of design is anticipating failure points and building catches. In healthcare, we do that in clinical settings, but when it comes to reminding a patient of an appointment they scheduled eight months ago, we make one phone call.

As a designer working in healthcare, one of the questions I get asked the most is, “how can we better engage our patients?” Too often, the question that is being really asked is, “how can we stay connected to our patients without doing anything practically different ourselves?” There’s a range of effort from the mundane to the audacious that can be deployed to improve the engagement of patients, but we have to get the simple stuff right first. From a designer’s perspective, true patient engagement comes from experiences that offer multiple modes of access, are complete, and are proactive.

Multiple Modes of Access

Apps and connected health devices have the potential to be a boon for healthcare providers, but only if we understand the expectations that we are competing with. Think about the ecosystem of Amazon. No matter how you feel about the company, it certainly makes itself available. You can interact with it in ways that fit into your life and that’s a benefit for you and for Amazon itself. I put one of my Alexas (Alexi?) in my kitchen and it promptly replaced my kitchen timer when I bake. You know what it also did? Became a concierge service that would restock my pantry without me even knocking the flour off of my hands. Amazon lets me engage on my terms. How many healthcare experiences offer a commensurate level of flexibility?


Maybe a more revealing example: I’ve come to loathe the airline that holds the bulk of my frequent flyer miles, but no one would claim I’m not engaged. I keep its app on my phone and I use it to buy flights, check status, download tickets and view details of my mileage account. Why do I stay engaged with a company that drives me nuts? It offers value in return. I can manage the majority of my interactions with this cursed company without making a phone call.

Too many pieces of healthcare technology are incomplete or piecemeal. Too many don’t allow you to pay for anything. Too many don’t allow you to schedule anything. They don’t take steps out of the process. They make it harder not easier. We’ve built applications that allow people to do one thing or start doing a bunch of things that they have to call us on the phone for eventually anyway. Consumers engage with experiences that are complete enough to add real value.


Providing a channel for engagement is not the same as driving it. Patient engagement is a search for symbiosis, not obedience. Healthcare providers must realize that they are competing for mindshare just like everyone else in an increasingly cluttered cognitive landscape. Consider:

It’s never been harder to cut through the clutter of American lives. All of the other things we’re competing with for attention are going to our patients and reminding them to engage. Frequently, healthcare is hoping that if we build it (a process, technology, etc.) they should come. We’re still in step one of a multi-step process. We can talk about AI and blockchain and connected health devices all we want, but first, we have to get the simple stuff right—make it easy for people to do the right thing.

Justin Kunkel, Chief Design Officer at Benjamin & Bond, will be moderating the #HealthEngagementpanel at the 2018 DHIT Summitin Durham on November 14th. Justin is an Experience Designer and zealot for simplicity. He believes that everything in life is a process that can be dissected, analyzed and optimized. He is fascinated by the way the things we use every day work—or don’t. He enjoys solving big, messy problems, like healthcare! Trying to find order, structure and patterns where those things are initially unapparent. For a full list of speakers at the 2018 #DHITSUMMITvisit