Designing for Healthcare

If I’m being honest, I never would have imagined myself designing within the healthcare space. I simply had too many negative preconceived notions. The thought of designing in healthcare evoked images of working with a team of designers trying to create and ship new interfaces within the tightly controlled constraints of ancient software for desktop. Slow and impeding overhead and antiquated processes flooded my mind and left me with little hope that it might be an industry I would enjoy.

However, it was not long ago that I found myself quickly becoming familiar with the healthcare system, particularly as it related to diabetes. In late 2015, I became incredibly ill with feelings of confusion, nausea, and extreme dehydration. I soon found myself in the emergency room, trying my best to understand and process the diagnosis that I had just received from the physician. He explained that I had entered the hospital with a dangerously high glucose level of 537 mg/dL, indicating that I had diabetes. A series of tests concluded that I was dealing with type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease in which the pancreas’ insulin-producing cells are destroyed by the body, requiring insulin to be delivered via injections or through the use of an insulin pump. It was a quick and blunt diagnosis that completely flipped my life upside down and I couldn’t help but feel totally overwhelmed. I spent two days in the hospital receiving treatment and was sent home with stacks of pamphlets and resources promising to help me learn how to control the disease. It didn’t take long for me to realize just how complex of a condition diabetes is and how difficult it can be to manage. As I continued to learn and experience the challenges of the disease, I couldn’t help but want to immerse myself, as a designer, into the field of healthcare.

Virta Health is a science-based online specialty clinic, using nutritional ketosis, physician supervision, and continuous remote monitoring to reverse type 2 diabetes in our patients. While type 2 diabetes differs from type 1 diabetes in its root cause, it shares many similarities when it comes to management. While type 1 diabetes cannot yet be reversed, type 2 diabetes, with the right tools and resources, can be. When I learned how effectively Virta treats patients through its tools and resources, as demonstrated in its clinical trials, I wanted nothing more than to join the team and help them execute their mission to reverse type 2 diabetes in 100 million people by the year 2025. I knew how painful (and expensive!) those insulin shots could be and I had encountered the constant worrying that comes with managing fluctuating blood sugars. I wanted to do all that I could to help those going through a similar experience.

It has now been two years since joining the Virta team, and it’s hard for me to imagine ever leaving the healthcare space. I cannot begin to describe the amount of joy and satisfaction that comes with working with a team on a product that significantly improves the lives of patients everywhere. To get a sense of what I mean, here’s a quote from one of our most recent testimonials:

I am so grateful to Virta Health and all the people responsible for bringing this program into fruition. It has not only changed, but saved, my life. I am continuing to be a productive person in the world. I am not chained to an illness with many problems and medications to manage or the costs associated with the health care resources needed to manage those problems or medications. I have been empowered to take control of my health. I am responsible, and I am in the driver’s seat of my health now. Today, the future looks bright.

Behind the many inspiring patient testimonials like the one above, is the effective and transformational intervention that Virta delivers. I am a designer on the Clinical Experience Team, and our responsibility is to understand, design, and develop software solutions that allows us to enable and scale continuous remote care for our patients.

Traditional care typically involves seeing a patient for just a few minutes at several points throughout the year, whereas continuous remote care enables a patient to have instant access to answers, resources, and support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Like many industries, Virta is investing heavily in both machine learning and artificial intelligence to achieve this goal. While we want to leverage technology to improve outcomes and scale, we certainly do not believe that AI will fully replace the human touch. A human on the other end of the our patient app provides both the trust and accountability needed to achieve our outcomes. Instead, we intend for our clinical software to provide our already talented medical team with superpowers, that is, the resources which allow them to provide a continuous and personalized experience to all of our patients. This requires fostering trust in the software, meaning that it should always be made clear why machine learning interventions are suggested and clinical members should have the ability to override with their own judgement if necessary.

One of the reasons I was motivated to join the Clinical Experience Team was the opportunity to work closely with our team of health coaches and physicians, who, before Virta, were not often given the ability to participate in the design process for the tools they use on a daily basis. Healthcare workers typically have access to only a limited set of tools due to the strict regulations and restrictions around working with patient health information. This is a rare problem for designers, engineers, and product managers, who are used to an endless supply of tools available to pick and choose from. Simply put, those working in healthcare are typically not able to decide which tools they use.

Screenshot of a typical EMR

At Virta, we fully recognize this reality, which is why we involve our entire clinical team from the inception of an idea to its fruition. One-to-one’s and feedback sessions with members of our clinical team have been critical, because while the designers, engineers, and product managers are responsible for creating and implementing features, if the feature doesn’t fit well into a clinical team member’s workflow, or if it decreases efficiency, our patients will not undergo the fullest effect of the Virta treatment. As a designer on the team, I want to ensure that I’m taking advantage of my close proximity to my users, as this can be such a rare event. This is where a tool called Figma comes into play.

Figma is a browser-based interface design tool, with an emphasis on collaboration and sharing. It is the tool that our design team uses to create nearly everything visual, including the software our clinical team uses. It’s not just the design team who has accounts on Figma, though. Quite the opposite, actually! Nearly all Virta team members (this includes our physicians and health coaches) can dive into a file to view or manipulate components. Our front-end engineering team is also working to bring to life a tool called Storybook, which provides a visual library of all available components accessible from the browser. We like to imagine that we’re busy building a series of useful knobs and levers for non-design team members to use, each one able to control and slightly alter visual components in one way or another. Empowering Virtans to create and share thoughts visually is a value deeply buried in our team’s culture.

I never would have imagined myself with the opportunity to work on this meaningful of a product, with this brilliant of a team, so early on in my career. Each day, through our patient’s voice, I’m reminded of just how effective the Virta treatment is for them and how it’s transforming their lives for the better and I am extremely grateful to be a designer on one of the teams responsible for those transformations.

To be a designer in healthcare today is not boring nor does it feel old-fashioned. It’s exciting, full of endless and challenging problems to solve, and incredibly rewarding. I am beyond grateful to be working with people and with teams who refuse to accept the status quo and are continuously pushing to advance how remote care is delivered, while working to end the global epidemic that is type 2 diabetes.

👋 Looking to make a difference in people’s lives? We’d love to have you on our team. If you’re a talented scientist, clinician, software engineer or designer, consider joining us on our mission!