Improving the outcomes at the Human Factors and Ergonomics international symposium

I recently attended the HFES 2015 International Symposium on Human Factors and Ergonomics in Healthcare: Improving the Outcomes held in Baltimore, MD.

The symposium was designed to ‘enable HF/E professionals to disseminate their science, principles and best practices to the health-care community, and to enable the health-care community and medical device/pharma industry to provide HF/E professionals with the proper context, requirements and perspectives to better focus HF/E initiatives’.

Anthony Andre of Interface Associates introduced the event as having the ‘ultimate goal of infusing HF/E into healthcare environments, systems and products’ thus leading to improvement in end-user outcomes. Reflecting on the event programme holistically however I find myself asking the question ‘what is the takeaway message?’

I say that with the utmost respect for the Human Factors discipline and for the experts who presented at the symposium who I found both insightful and thought provoking. Despite this, much of the content and moreover questions put forward by the audience in attendance conflicted with the event’s goal. The slogan of the symposium, “Improving the Outcomes” left me asking ‘who for?’

I found much of the content somewhat reminiscent of early education where students would plead with lecturers to reveal what questions or topics would be in the exam. The implication being that students only wanted to know what they needed to know in order to pass. That is, much of the sessions at the symposium presented material on ‘best practices’ and ‘lessons learned’ not from perspective of studying end users and their behaviour, but from the view of successfully passing the industry-wide ‘daunting prospect’ of the summative study.

This I feel is and should be a concern to both the practice of Human Factors and the Medical Device/Pharmaceutical Industry. At times it feels like as practitioners within the healthcare space we are too focused on the end game which is to be successful in validating our device and instructions that we lose sight of the real reasons why we do what we do.

My question is how did we arrive here and where do we go from here to ensure that we are not only supporting end users of medical devices but also the discipline of human factors?

One thought provoking session presented by an experienced panel, did allude to this issue, entitled ‘Do Standard User Centred Design (UCD) Methods Work in Healthcare?’ To my mind UCD is a philosophy, an approach to design that one can choose or not choose to take when designing anything, be it a product, service or piece of equipment. Applying a UCD approach can be achieved through multiple recognised, well researched and published methods that support this philosophy. UCD therefore is universal.

The challenges for the healthcare industry in applying such a philosophy are confounded by the practicalities of applying appropriate methods across the design and development process of a medical device. I believe if we are truly to move forward in designing devices that we can honestly say are user centred we need to have an industry wide understanding of UCD and of its value. My takeaway message; always challenge conventional wisdom. We cannot continue to apply traditional methodologies and approaches to designing medical devices simply because it is the approach that has always been taken or because it is considered good enough to pass the ‘exam’.

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