Understanding agile software development for healthcare
In today's fast-paced world, the healthcare industry faces increasing pressure to adapt, innovate, and deliver high-quality patient care efficiently. To meet these challenges head-on, many healthcare organizations are embracing digital transformation projects through different development methodologies.
Till recently, agile methods like rapid prototyping and test-and-learn with customers, did not seem to gel with the highly regulated processes of healthcare. In 2019 however, a survey by Bain & Company revealed:
- 75% health executives believed their agile teams performed better than traditional teams did.
- A global biopharma company reported that agile teams reduced the lead time for developing prototypes and conducting initial customer tests by 90%.
A shift in mindset and quick alignment among stakeholders has seen the adoption of agile methodologies not only for research and development but also for services, customer experiences and internal processes. There have been guidelines and technical information reports released by industry associations too.
Agile software development in healthcare
Agile is a software development method that is quick and responds swiftly to change. It is an iterative approach where variables like requirements, the design process, building, testing etc. run parallel in smaller time frames.
In the agile software development in healthcare methodology, project requirements are not strictly defined upfront, but evolve naturally through collaboration with clients. Snap decisions are never made, and in fact, agile relies on delaying decisions up to the “last responsible moment.” This encourages correct prioritization, better understanding of dependencies and waiting for the right answers.
Also, testing and validation is embedded as an integral part of the process. Which means, the product built is functional (as intended) customer-centric (meets specified user needs) and integrates with other components.
Thus the three main reasons why agile is important in healthcare software development is:
- It is iterative.
- It is collaborative.
- It is customer-centric.
This approach to software development focuses on delivering value quickly and continuously. The project is broken into small tasks that do not require a lot of planning but either validate the process or find flaws faster. It brings with it early learnings to correct the course, instead of waiting till the end and starting over. The concept of a minimum viable product, helps healthcare companies capture the core functionality of the solution first and later build on additional features. This is convenient for healthcare IT implementation projects that grapple with:
- Frequent additions to protect patient data.
- Repeated alterations to comply with strict regulations.
- Continuous improvement to align with patient needs.
Agile practices are revitalizing healthcare software development
Understanding how agile practices roll out in a typical healthcare development scenario, may provide a better picture of why agile is important in healthcare software development.
Sprint: A sprint is a time-boxed development iteration in agile methodology, typically lasting 2-4 weeks. In healthcare, a sprint may see the development team work on a specific set of features, improvements, or bug fixes related to an application. For example, a sprint might be dedicated to developing a new module for electronic health records (EHR) or enhancing the security of a patient information database.
Stand-ups: The daily stand-up meetings are short, daily meetings where team members briefly discuss their progress, plans, and any obstacles they may be facing. In the healthcare domain, this helps the team to stay aligned to the project objective, while all members are informed about the project status. Issues like data privacy, regulatory compliance and integration challenges with other healthcare systems may be mentioned.
Demos: It is a meeting at the end of each sprint where the development team present the completed work to stakeholders for feedback. A sprint review -- as it is also called -- may be devoted to showcasing new features or enhancements. Stakeholders, including healthcare professionals, patients, administrators, and regulatory experts, provide feedback.
Backlogs: A product backlog refers to the list of features, enhancements and bug fixes that need to be implemented, while a sprint backlog is a further prioritized listing of the same that a team may commit to work on during the next sprint. For instance, patient data management may be picked from a longer list of requirements.
User Stories: These are end-use stories that help a team prioritize one product backlog over the other. It is a user-centric description of a specific piece of functionality or a feature that needs to be developed. Example: As a patient (user) I want to be able to schedule appointments online (capability) so that I can easily access healthcare services (goal) and reduce wait times (benefit).
Retrospectives: Another meeting held at the end of a sprint reflects on the team’s performance, identifies areas for improvement, and draws up an actionable plan for the next sprint. In healthcare, the focus here may be on continuous improvement to meet prescribed standards. The team members typically discuss patient safety, data security, user experience and so forth.
These agile practices enable teams to deliver software that meets regulatory, security, and patient care standards while maintaining flexibility and responsiveness to evolving healthcare needs.
Features of agile software development for healthcare
Agile software development is a collaborative, iterative, and customer-centric approach to software development that focuses on delivering value quickly and continuously.
The time frame for iterations is also small, typically between one and four weeks. At the end of each iteration, the product is presented to the clients. As a result, the risk is minimum and the project can adapt to any change in requirements quickly. The feedback loop is very short and so any issue can be addressed immediately. The lines of communication between clients, the development team and the testing team members are open, which leads to increased efficiency.
Here is why agile is important in healthcare software development:
- Agile software development in healthcare embraces change, allows frequent reassessments and adjustment of project goal based on feedback throughout the development process.
- Agile software development for healthcare values continuous customer collaboration over rigid contracts and negotiation, through continuous delivery to make solutions relevant, responsive and aligned to the needs of patients and providers.
- Agile also prioritizes customer satisfaction, teamwork and flexibility, just as scrum, Kanban, and lean do.
- Agile software development in healthcare is about delivering working software rather than comprehensive documentation. This means healthcare organizations can see tangible results.
- Agile emphasizes individuals and interactions over processes and tools. Agile software development for healthcare thus fosters creativity and problem-solving within cross-functional teams.
Little wonder, we are increasingly finding agile software development in healthcare across real world projects such as:
- EHR solutions: Updates and improvements can be rapidly deployed ensuring healthcare providers have access to the latest tools and features and comply with regulatory changes.
- Telemedicine platforms: Remote monitoring can be continually improved with patient feedback that allow adjustments in real-time, resulting in improved user experiences.
- Healthcare mobile apps: Rapid prototyping and testing and release of beta versions of apps for medication management, appointment scheduling, and remote monitoring have made them user-friendly.
- Population health management: Data analytics that identify changing patient demographics and health trends have helped at-risk populations through targeted interventions.
- Quality improvement projects: A data-driven and iterative approach to improvements at healthcare facilities have had a strong impact on positive patient outcomes.
Agile methodology accelerates software delivery
Agile software development in healthcare brings with it several benefits. Here are the top five benefits:
- Faster time-to-market: Accelerates development and deployment of healthcare solutions, potentially saving lives.
- Improved collaboration: Encourages an inter-disciplinary approach which spawns innovation aligned to clinical outcomes.
- Enhanced flexibility: Allows quick response to regulatory changes, emerging technologies, and shifting patient needs.
- Continuous improvement: Enables rectifications and enhancements through regular feedback loops and retrospectives.
- Reduced risk: Minimizes the chances of large-scale failures by breaking projects into manageable pieces with scope for pivots.
Respondents across industries reported an improvement in their ability to manage changing priorities due to the adoption of agile methodology
Source: VersionOne, 12th Annual State of Agile Report(2018)
Though industry cites accelerated software delivery as the foremost reason to adopt agile, respondents in the infographic above, six percent of whom represent the healthcare industry, think agile equips them to manage changing priorities better. This is of significance in the healthcare sector, where changes are myriad and variables are sometimes unknown.
Lack of enterprise agility hampers scalability
You should look for a web application development company for your business or hire a custom software development provider, when you decide to go agile. Simply because, agile software development in healthcare has its share of challenges:
Regulatory compliance: Adherence to strict regulatory standards such as HIPAA to ensure patient data security and privacy.
Cultural resistance: Traditional hierarchical structures may resent cross-functional teams and collaborative decision-making.
Training to reskill: Investments are required in education programs to close knowledge gaps and embrace agile software development for healthcare.
Project complexity: Highly complex, long-term projects may require a hybrid approach that combines agile with other methodologies.
General organizational resistance to change was cited as a barrier to adoption of agile software development
Source: VersionOne, 12th Annual State of Agile Report (2018)
Year after year, surveys across industries reveal that there is lack of support from the leadership. Absence of executive buy-in is therefore a major discouragement. This is especially alarming for the healthcare sector where the concept of ‘nimble medicine’ expects healthcare leaders to disrupt their own organization before technology providers redefine healthcare delivery.Agile methodology cannot succeed when:
- Company culture is top-down and leaders shy away from sponsoring new methodologies.
- Tools provide historical support for legacy methods and heterogeneous technologies that exacerbate inconsistency.
- Processes are built around presenteeism and boundaries, instead of guidelines and people empowerment.
- Enterprise sluggishness blots out agility where best practices are replicated with inter-departmental scalability.
In conclusion, the principles of agile software development for healthcare namely - flexibility, collaboration, and continuous improvement align perfectly with the dynamic and evolving nature of healthcare. You will understand why agile is important in healthcare software development when you see that agile is not just healing patients, it is becoming healthier too –more adaptable, efficient and patient-focused than ever before.