One in four American adults has some type of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Yet, less than five percent of the top hospitals are compliant with the latest WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines), the baseline for private and public sector organizations to provide digitally accessible solutions to consumers and, in the case of healthcare, patients with disabilities.
The healthcare industry has historically been slower to adapt to technology changes, but Covid required a monumental change in how healthcare providers addressed the patient experience. During the throes of the pandemic, office visits were difficult and stressful for patients. Hospitals were overrun with Covid-stricken patients. For an industry that has been largely reliant on face-to-face contact, the healthcare industry found itself at a crossroads. The digital experience was no longer a nice to have and a differentiator, but a dire necessity to meet patients’ health needs safely and adequately.
Today, nearly two-thirds of American adults have used a mobile health app, many of whom interact with those apps daily. Pulling that off and creating a great experience is not easy. It requires seamless orchestration between hardware, software, and services to deliver a great experience for patients.
For patients, frustration mounts when they are confused about how to use apps, they encounter defects, or their performance is slow, especially when these issues are perceived as inhibitors to care.
Those frustrations are often compounded for patients with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that healthcare organizations provide full and equal access for patients with disabilities. Providing accessible healthcare experiences is simply a must, whether to stabilize digital care as a revenue channel or to simply do right by the patients who need it. So, if digital accessibility is a driver of differentiation and patient satisfaction, and it’s mandated by law, why are so many providers failing to deliver in this area?
Accessibility must be a part of the design process from day one
The need for accessibility in healthcare is greater than in other industries because in addition to the baseline of people with more permanent disabilities who require care, many patients have temporary disabilities – such as eye injuries or changes in mobility due to surgical procedures – that also require accessible solutions. Therefore, accessibility must be baked into how we build products, from design through development to release, to ensure the best experiences for all patients.
In addition, brands that proactively solicit and incorporate feedback from people with disabilities create better products and new revenue channels. For example, how might a blind person’s sleep patterns differ? How can you lead a deaf person through guided meditation? In what ways can a fitness tracker cater to a person with mobility challenges? These are market segments lost when accessibility takes a back seat.
By incorporating feedback and accessibility principles into the design process early, companies can avoid rework later, saving time, frustration, and dollars.
Accessibility is not a technological shift, but a cultural one
Inclusive design is the principle for ensuring barriers are removed so as to make an experience usable for the largest audience. From the beginning of the design process, it takes the needs of all users into consideration when creating a digital experience.
A design principle alone is not enough to make a significant organizational change, however.
Accessibility is a cultural change for organizations, which starts with the executive team and permeates through the organization. To get there, C-suite leaders should think about digital accessibility the same way they do physical accessibility. Can you imagine a hospital without ramps for wheelchairs or elevators to take patients from floor to floor? You certainly wouldn’t forget ADA-compliant bathrooms on each floor of a building, so why would you forget to build in screen readers and appropriate color contrast into your digital products?
Tips for re-designing for accessibility
Sometimes, it’s impossible to avoid retrofitting. When platforms and processes that are already in place need updating to be more accessible, I recommend:
- Analyzing the current state of your digital experience. You can’t improve accessibility without understanding where it sits in your digital experience program. Understand where you are and what improvements are needed. Conduct an audit and usability benchmark of key user journeys for patients with disabilities. Then, prioritize the changes that will have the most impact.
- Integrating accessibility research and design feedback into all upcoming projects. When you’re able to address accessibility at ideation, you are able to see the value of making minor fixes versus a total redesign to make the product accessible.
- Building accessibility into your digital quality solution. Accessible digital products not only stave off costly lawsuits; they also improve patient experience and satisfaction. As an example, one U.S. provider with hundreds of sites across 21 states committed to a digital quality solution to help improve the digital experience for patients with disabilities. As a result, they saw a 64 percent increase in website visits, a 470 percent increase in online scheduling, and patient satisfaction scores rose nearly 25 percent. Focusing on accessibility works to improve the overall patient experience.
A lack of accessible services and experiences causes distress and inhibits equitable care for people with disabilities. When a digital screen is the first — and, in some cases, primary — means of receiving care and improving wellness, the patient’s experience is a vital element of their care. Companies in this space must treat it that way, prioritizing usability, empathy, and inclusivity on an ongoing basis.
Photo: abdoudz, Getty Images