Here’s a healthcare design thinking question to ponder:
How might we nurture closeness in a post-pandemic healthcare market?
When I say closeness, I’m talking about human proximity—the general physical spaces we are accustomed to being in when interacting with healthcare providers. Think about it: before COVID-19 entered the picture, we were bouncing in and out of healthcare settings freely and naturally. Now, we are limited in terms of access to healthcare delivery spaces (offices and clinics) and we are accepting video or tele-health visits as completely normal. How we use healthcare spaces has fundamentally changed, and we will likely not be going back to pre-pandemic scenarios—ever.
Social distancing, here to stay.
It was something like 50 years ago that a guy named Edward Hall first scribbled the words social distance down. Two words that we Americans (and the world at large) now use almost daily. Remember when you first heard the term “social distance?” Like a moonshot moment, some people remember where they were when the term entered their minds. These two words soon to become an everyday phrase in how the world thinks about and talks about doing everything we do every day. Everything.
Edward Twitchell Hall, Jr. was an American anthropologist and researcher. He is best known for developing the concept of proxemics and exploring how humans behave and interact within various types of culturally defined personal spaces. Hall developed his theory of proxemics by exploring the notion that a human’s individual perception of space, “although derived from sensory apparatus that all humans share” is fundamentally shaped by culture.” Hall argued that differing cultural frameworks for defining and organizing space, which are internalized in all people at an unconscious level, can lead to serious failures of communication and understanding in cross-cultural settings.”1
In a nutshell, Hall’s theory suggests that some cultures require more space than others. From personal body “zones” to offices, shops, parking lots, and homes—Hall outlined four zones of what he called “interpersonal distance” that are generally used in Western culture. They are: intimate (up to 18 inches), personal (18–48 inches), social (48 inches to 12 feet), and public (greater than 12 feet). And he went on to explore how these zones shrink or enlarge within different cultures. For example we Americans like more spaced between us when interacting, in contrast to Latin Americans who generally interact in a more close or intimate zone.
Proxemics enters the Age of Telehealth
Now, let’s think about telemedicine and internet-based clinical interactions. It’s safe to say that Hall wasn’t thinking about how technology might impact his theories or play a role in creating perceived distances—especially within the context of a healthcare transaction. But telemedicine may well change the narrative. These visits are not going away. And I believe we will soon need to pay attention to the proxemics embedded in a digital space just as much as we do in a physical space.
Having nuanced conversations in real life is something we humans will continue to crave. And such cravings must be satisfied by more than a visual video interface. The nuance of gesture; the warmth of physical proximity; the ability to glance, smile, nod and share intimacy; or simply to sit quietly together is difficult if not impossible in a Zoom encounter.
Humans are complex animals, and the density and messiness of life, intellect, and individual physical nuance will not go away because a pandemic has compelled us to use telemedicine. When the pandemic subsides, and we are back to “normal”—whatever that is—we will still crave the more bespoke connections that physical proximity provides.
This is interesting because, with a renewed focus on how close we might be to one another in healthcare (and other social) settings, it’s safe to imagine how this idea of proxemics intersects with telemedicine to provide an excellent healthcare design thinking question.
So, how might we nurture closeness in a post-pandemic healthcare market?
While telemedicine will surely grow as a useful tool in healthcare, we cannot ignore the fresh demands of what we might call healthcare tele-proximity. This is the requirement to manage the distance the consumer perceives between technology and people, thereby addressing the fundamental urge for closeness we share as humans.
Innovative ways to engage with and empower patients will surely emerge as we seek better designs for interacting digitally. It makes sense that we might look for paths that champion the human condition within the context of technology—or, said another way, that champion technology within the context of the human condition.
Despite what we might be led to believe by market disruptors, technology is not the end-all and be-all solution to any healthcare transaction. It is simply a tool used by humans who generally express a basic need for connection to other humans. Human connection is grounded in perceived closeness—emotional and physical—each interacting to create a sense of being. Dr. Hall’s topic of proxemics is alive and well 50 years later, and as such, Healthcare providers and marketers must seek ways to facilitate healthcare tele-proximity which can be defined as follows:
1) The focus of balancing telemedicine and virtual engagement platforms with emotional or physical artifacts or experiences that serve the patient’s primal need for warm person-to-person interactions—interactions that are necessary to satisfy the fundamental urge for closeness we share as humans.
2) To engage with consumers virtually, yet still touch them in some way with a physical or digital artifact or tool—within the context of an emotionally compelling touchpoint.
3) To close the distance the consumer perceives between technology and the fundamental urge for closeness we share as humans.
4) A blend of tech and touch in a healthcare delivery world that is increasingly more digital.
Opportunities for tele-proximity abound.
An over reliance on technology while conducting our daily activities is fueling a home-first, self-awareness trend. Regardless of how prominent technology might become, as humans, it is logical that we seek human interactions—physical and emotional encounters that transcend the offerings of a Zoom video conference.
We must remember that healthcare is a uniquely human endeavor, so it should be no big surprise that consumers will continue to express an ongoing need for real human interaction.
Are there ways to combine a sense of human contact with telemedicine or technology interfaces? Is it possible that we can engage with consumers virtually yet still “touch” them in some way with a physical or emotional artifact? These are the kinds of healthcare design questions we will be asking ourselves as we seek to understand and champion healthcare tele-proximity and the human need for a blend of tech & touch in a post COVID world.
(1) Brown, N. (2001). Edward T. Hall, Proxemic Theory, 1966. CSISS Classics. UC Santa Barbara: Center for Spatially Integrated Social Science. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/4774h1rm