In this series, Healthcare Design asks leading healthcare design professionals, firms, and owners to tell us what’s got their attention and share some ideas on the subject.

Mackenzie King is director of design research and insight translation at Lextant (Columbus, Ohio), a human-experience firm. Here, King shares her thoughts on strategies for successfully surfing the senior tsunami, the rise of track-it-all apps, and new approaches to dealing with the sounds inside a healthcare environment.

1. Wearables as diagnostic tools

We’ve seen wearables become real-time health assessment tools to alert, track, and inform on the go. What happens when it becomes the diagnostic tool that doctors or caregivers reference with confidence as an input for treatment? Apple is in talks with the Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins, and Mount Sinai Hospital to determine how those organizations could use its cloud-based health information platform known as “HealthKit.” There’s also the potential for home-care providers to also use the platform. Currently, these providers spend a significant part of their day driving from one patient’s home to another. Will wearable diagnostics replace in-person visits? Will we sacrifice the human interaction for the efficiency of information access and the ease of dispensing care remotely?

2. Track-it-all apps

Increasing clinician specialization often eliminates the general practitioner’s role at the hub of communication across the continuum of care. The burden of communicating across a team of specialists now lies with patients or caregivers to “play doctor”—knitting together information for the full story of diagnosis, treatment options, and outcomes assessment. Patients must try to capture, track, and transfer information across a diverse group. We’re starting to see apps do just that. The CrossChx app, for example, stores all medical history in one place and ties a patient’s medical records to a single ID that can be accessed from the app and via a fingerprint scan using a kiosk in a doctor’s waiting room. Today, with more than 90 percent of Americans owning a cellphone, apps like CrossChx and Apple’s suite of Health and Results apps will serve increasingly important roles that were once hidden inside complex hospital informatics.

3. A duel between voice recognition and noisy earcons

Alarms, notifications, and incessant beeping have become an expected presence in hospitals. Lextant has been approached by both medical-device manufacturers and hospitals alike with the challenge of ensuring that the sounds—or earcons—emitted by devices, equipment, and PA systems evoke the appropriate response. Does beeping signify low battery or a situation requiring immediate attention? Complicating the noise situation is the entry of voice-recognition technology in healthcare environments. While it’s amusing when stories like the 6-year-old girl accidentally buying a $170 dollhouse go viral, it’s frightening to imagine potential voice-recognition snafu scenarios in healthcare settings. Thorough research and thoughtful design will ensure a more seamless approach to an otherwise complex technology environment.

4. Senior tsunami breeds smarter homes

Easier-to-open door handles, first-floor suites, and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms are no longer afterthoughts, but instead built-in before the need arises. A senior tsunami is quickly approaching, with more than 72 million people reaching or exceeding age 65 in less than 15 years. We all remember the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” television commercial for the emergency response necklace of the 1990s. Will our smartphones and smart homes be as user-friendly as a button on a chain? We must consider how to humanize that experience, ensuring that seniors aren’t shrouded in embarrassment, but instead empowered by the access and independence that smart technology can provide.

5. Leaning on amateur caregivers

Not only will this growing population require care for critical illness, but a trend toward shortening hospital stays will also place amateur caregivers at the center of treatment for patients in surgery recovery. In the past year, more than 34 million Americans provided unpaid care to an adult age 50 or older, and that number is expected to grow. The interface of each medical device will need to be easy to learn how to operate, easy to clean in a less-sterile environment, and easy to store in tight quarters. When devices move from the hospital to the home they require different criteria for usability. If the primary user of a device is now the patient or their family, there’s a strong probability of some sort of situational disability or challenge—whether cognitive, physical, or emotional.  As such, the Food and Drug Administration is revisiting its Home Use Devices Initiative from 2010; clinicians, human factors specialists, and user experience (UX) designers have taken note.