Why aren’t people adhering to treatment plans, and how can we use digital technology to remove barriers and create new incentive structures?

Too often, patients leave their doctors’ offices and are on their own. Armed with a plan from their doctor, they take care of themselves as best they can amidst daily distractions like work, errands, and commuting. They lean on family members, nutritionists, or fitness coaches, but these people aren’t always around. When they return to their doctors, they take their best guess about how well they did, and doctors send them back into the world until the next check in.

Understandably, it’s difficult for patients to perfectly follow their treatment plans; factors like business, confusion, or isolation can severely impact adherence. But the disconnect between doctors’ offices and patients’ everyday lives can have serious consequences. At a 2013 conference orchestrated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, speakers reported that every year, medical non-adherence causes 125,000 deaths and costs the healthcare industry over $100 billion.

To address this problem, a new class of digital healthcare products is bridging the gap between doctors and patients. These products are always on, working to capture and analyze patient data and facilitate seamless communication with care professionals during life’s busy moments when patients are on their own.

But it’s not enough to put these products in patients’ hands. To truly impact health outcomes, these products need to change patient behavior. It comes down to a design challenge: why aren’t people adhering to treatment plans, and how can we use digital technology to remove these barriers and create new incentive structures?

Products that succeed focus on three design attributes: simplicity, personalization, and rewards.

Social psychology BJ Fogg outlined six elements of simplicity that determine whether or not someone completes a given behavior: time (how long does the behavior take?), effort (how difficult is it?), cost (how expensive is it?), habit (how far is it from my normal routine?), cognitive burden (how much mental strain does it require?) and social deviance (how socially acceptable is it?). Products focused on simplicity reduce friction from these factors to make it easier for patients to complete treatment plans, increasing the likelihood they’ll follow through.

The aptly-named AdhereTech is a connected pill bottle that tracks how patients take medication. AdhereTech works because it’s extremely simple; it requires no new patient behavior. Patients open and close AdhereTech exactly as they would a regular pill bottle, but each time they do, data is shared wirelessly with their doctors. Both doctors and patients stay informed, and AdhereTech reminds patients when they forget their medication, increasing adherence. Another product, OhMD, reduces friction around doctor-patient communications between appointments to ensure patients get answers when they’re confused about treatment. Instead of interrupting a busy day to call their doctors, patients use OhMD to text doctors the same way they’d text friends, making it more likely they’ll reach out. OhMD is simple for doctors, too; messages from patients are received and archived directly in the patient portals they’re already using.

Products that successfully drive medical adherence don’t just track patient data; they use it to personalize patient experiences. By better understanding patients, doctors can recommend more effective treatment and help patients fit that treatment seamlessly into their lives.

Chrono Therapeutics helps people quit smoking by identifying their personal cravings cycle (the contextual triggers or times of day when they most crave a cigarette) and coaching them through these high-risk times. As part of the company’s Chrono Solution program, smokers wear a connected device that delivers nicotine replacement medication at optimal times to reduce cravings and withdrawal. Through a mobile app, patients can review data from their device and receive support when they need it most. GlucoIQ takes a similar approach to improving outcomes for patients with diabetes. Patients wear a connected glucose monitor that continuously analyzes glucose trends. If readings are trending abnormally, GlucoIQ notifies the patient’s doctor so she can proactively reach out to adjust treatment or provide support.

Though being healthy is its own reward, sometimes the end effects of treatment seem so far off that patients lose sight of them. To keep patients motivated, some digital products incorporate short-term rewards that boost patient morale and create a sense of achievement, in turn increasing medical adherence.

The Mango Health app gamifies patients’ treatment plans by attributing points to important actions like taking medication, drinking water, and exercising. When they earn enough points, patients can “cash out” for gift cards to major retailers like Target or Starbucks. These periodic rewards help patients celebrate small successes and motivate them to stay on track and earn another gift card. Monetary rewards can be effective, but Omada Health focuses on a different type of reward. The company’s 16-week chronic disease prevention program pairs patients with an online “team” of other patients completing the same program. As patients complete the program, they can support each other with congratulations and words of encouragement, the same kinds of social rewards that motivate people to post to Facebook or Instagram.

Together, this new class of digital healthcare products is increasing medical adherence and improving health outcomes through user-centered design. But this approach isn’t restricted to healthcare. Companies in any industry can increase success by making key actions easier for customers to complete. By understanding customers needs, motivations, and fears, companies can leverage social psychology principles to help customers overcome barriers to actions. By building products centered on simplicity, personalization, and rewards, any company can improve customer experiences and transform business as usual.