Engineering With Empathy: Medtech’s Missing Piece in the OR

By Tommy Carls

In healthcare, empathy and technology are central to advancing patient care. Without thoughtful consideration of patient empathy in product design, technology can make patients feel uncomfortable or even dehumanized. Thus it is imperative to consider how to keep patient empathy as the main focus when creating new medical technology.

The conversation around applying empathy in patient care commonly includes patient-facing clinicians, but it is time for that conversation to extend to product developers and engineers in medical technology companies. Many organizations are already incorporating patient-centered principles in their approach, but there is an opportunity to delve deeper. Surgical engineering and product development is a complex field with tough decisions. Everyone involved in the process has an opportunity to deeply consider the people they are impacting with their innovations. By cultivating empathy for the patient throughout the engineering process, the medtech industry will continue to thoughtfully develop user-centered products.

The word “empathy” is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Empathy is a complex and fundamental human function that allows a person to essentially imagine themselves in another person’s shoes. Individuals and groups are more inclined to empathize with people and groups whom they’re most directly exposed to, which is why applying empathy to medical technology design can be challenging if engineers aren’t exposed to clinical workflows, operating room conditions, and exercises to help understand the patient experience.

Professionals in patient-facing roles generally have more understanding of empathy than professionals in technical product development roles. However, engineers have significant influence over product design that ultimately has the potential to impact millions of people. Throughout the product development process, the consideration of empathy and an engineering team’s ability to understand or share the feelings and experiences of their end users—the patients—can have benefits for a wide population.

Employing empathetic engineering

How can we instill empathy in medtech engineers? Let me introduce you to a guiding principle that’s helped me through tough decisions throughout my career in medical technology: the Mom Rule. Each time I’m faced with a challenging decision about the design or development of a medical device, I ask myself or my colleagues, “Would you be comfortable with this device being used on your mom?” This kind of question is a great gauge to help your team avoid cutting corners in product development. It can prompt you to ask for a few more tests when developing a product to ensure your team is on the right track. And if you always make a decision based on the answer to that question, it’s nearly guaranteed your decision will be correct. Medical technology creates products that impact the lives of real people, so it’s important that the engineers who build medical products have hands-on exposure and keep the patient experience in mind.

How to generate empathy in a technical setting

While engineering education traditionally centers around developing technical skills, problem solving, design, and modeling, engineers can still develop a deeper understanding of the patient experience. For that reason, bringing engineers into the operating room is the most beneficial tool in your team’s empathy-generating toolbox. Allowing engineers to see, understand, and observe how technology and equipment is used and how workflows unfold will do much more to inform their innovation and design process than simply explaining the issues to them. Other direct contact methods to help generate empathy could include focus groups, user trials, or interviews. Indirect contact methods could include storytelling techniques, developing patient scenarios or personas, experience prototyping, or reviewing user data.

Engineers in medtech have an important job to do, but it’s important to remember that empathy in engineering is a team sport. Many people are involved in the medical device business. Manufacturing, marketing, medical, education, sales, and other roles all have a responsibility to deliver a product that stands up to the Mom Rule. It’s important for people in each of these positions to inform their design and build process in a way that centers medical technology solutions on improved, optimized patient outcomes. By utilizing the Mom Rule as a north star, along with inviting engineers into operating rooms to understand the goals providers are trying to reach, we can give our industry’s engineers additional insight and information that will allow them to thoughtfully develop user-centered products.

Tommy Carls is vice president of product management and marketing at Proprio.