What cancer taught me about designing patient care systems

Gemma Emmett, solutions architect at IT management company, Bluewolf, writes about how she used her experience as a cancer patient to improve healthcare technology and patient care.

Gemma Emmett, Solutions Architect, Bluewolf

In today’s world, people expect better customer experience and want to be treated with compassion, particularly when it comes to healthcare. At 29, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. With a wedding to plan, an 18-month old daughter, as well as changing jobs, I couldn’t even begin to think about how I would go about getting treatment.

I was very fortunate to have a private medical insurer as a work benefit. But having never gone private before, I didn’t know how the insurance claim process worked. The insurer was brilliant at answering any queries I had, and clearly laid out the process I had to go through in the event of needing treatment. They made it seem so easy, which was the reassurance I needed.


The problems I encountered

While I had a good experience with my insurer for most of my treatment, I noticed an area in major need of improvement.

As with most people’s medical records, much of my medical history is on paper, making it difficult for different specialists to get a clear view of me as a patient. As a result, there have been a few occasions it’s taken about a week to get hold of things like pathology reports, in order to get additional opinions to formulate the best treatment plan.

I also discovered just how slow customer service can be. A problem with my insurance cover date, due to an HR mix-up at work, resulted in me spending an entire morning trying to take out a policy that would continue my cover after my leave date and start a new claim. Unfortunately this meant that everything needed to be processed by a different department. I kept having to chase them and get them to call me back with an update, which became very time-consuming.

Almost a year later, cancer-free and back at work. I started working on a project with a private medical insurer to improve their patient care system. This company is unlike any other I’ve worked with – through gamification and rewards, it helps customers remain healthy. Yet they struggled to unify critical customer data spread across many systems. A single view of the patient didn’t exist.

This resonated with the issues I faced as a patient. I was constantly going to different specialists, but my insurer had great difficulty keeping track. My specialists at the insurer couldn’t see I’d undergone radiotherapy or had been in hospital for a short stay after chemo. Having all that information in disparate systems and spreadsheets made it difficult for the specialists to determine the next steps, as they didn’t have the whole picture. As someone who was already vulnerable, this was frustrating because it felt like they didn’t actually have a handle on my situation.

So using my own experience motivated me to help this client use technology to better understand their members.


How I wanted to change the system

When I met with the Special Care Team at the company, which deals with high-value and long-term medical insurance claims like cardiac, psychiatric, and oncology, I revealed that I had been a cancer patient and member of a private healthcare insurance plan. I was therefore uniquely placed to advise on improvements to patient care, including building trust with patients and creating seamless two-way conversations.

We established their main priorities: to improve the way they processed claims, the tracking of diagnoses and treatment, and the response time to patient queries. It was pleasing to see they wanted to include the patients’ emotional response to treatments and consultations in their medical assessment. It was this that became essential in transforming this company’s work practices so that they could focus on patient care.

This wasn’t just a normal work project for me. Combining my own experiences and the power of technology helped us create a system that can truly benefit the patient, which is something I’m very proud of and hope can help more people in the future.


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