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Error 404: Healthcare Not Found — 5 Lessons Pharma Can Learn from the Healthcare.gov Fiasco

Wendy Blackburn

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On October 1, Healthcare.gov, the online marketplace for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, went live. Unless you have been living in a cave, you know the site’s functionality immediately became an issue. Its highly anticipated launch coupled, with the high-profile nature of healthcare in general, left little room for error. Although the situation is unfortunate, there are several important lessons the pharma industry can take from the Healthcare.gov challenges.

1. Be Secure — While financial information is not directly entered into healthcare.gov, the moment a social security number is submitted, there is a risk for privacy breach. According to CBS News, the formal deadline for final security plans slipped three times between May 6 and July 16 and final top to bottom security testing was never completed.

Nothing undermines an organization’s good intentions like an apparent disregard for their customer’s personal information and security. Simply mitigating risk is not sufficient. While the regulations that apply to data handling on healthcare.gov are different from most pharma marketing websites, at minimum, pharma companies should expect agency partners to follow best practices in data privacy, system security and quality assurance (QA).

2. Work With the Right PartnerSlate Magazine reviewed the site and found that at least two disparate sets of developers, working in isolation, designed pieces of the site. Some reports indicated that as many as 55 contractors were involved in the build. And CGI, the Canadian IT company at the center of the ruckus, did not have a stellar track record of delivering against large government IT projects to begin with.

Building a large, structurally sound website is complicated and is becoming more and more complex. While some of the issues on the Healthcare.gov site appear to be cosmetic, back-end issues caused by multiple developers simultaneously entering incompatible code caused significant problems.

Working with reputable, trusted partners who understand the technology, the big picture and their role in it, and who have a proven ability to openly collaborate with others can help solve problems as they arise.

3. Consider More Agile, User-Centric Development Cycles — When polled, a number of the technology experts at Intouch Solutions felt there was fault in the way Healthcare.gov was approached in the first place.

“They approached it like a big, bloated effort: Spend an eternity documenting requirements in a vacuum and then build, build, build. Then begin testing too late and deliver a site that doesn’t meet the customer’s needs,” said David Windhausen, executive vice president and lead over all technology services at Intouch. “It would have been much more effective to take an iterative approach that included real end-users. Then the cycle would be to launch, test with users, plan, launch again, etc.”

Pharma companies’ processes are rarely called “agile,” but their agency partners can facilitate a more nimble environment by showing them the way. Intouch has been helping a number of our clients approach design and development with novel techniques. Using new tools such as our Innovation Lab and live prototyping, we’ve streamlined production through a more dynamic, collaborative approach. (Clients can contact us to learn more.)

4. Encourage & Enable Collaboration Among Partners — Another key component to successfully managing a large team of consultants is making sure everyone is in the know. In the Slate Magazine article, the author states that while programmers are typically great when it comes to testing their own code, testing to ensure their code works with code entered by others tends to create many more challenges.

While having multiple agencies and partners involved on projects is sometimes unavoidable, clients can still set up the team for success. It’s the lead project coordinator’s responsibility to make sure all developers are both aware of one another and aware of how their code will interact. This can be difficult as coding is complex and requires specialized expertise. By keeping an open line of communication and encouraging transparent sharing, you can avoid these problems. This is not to say it’s easy, but it’s a step that must be taken to ensure a successful end product.

5. Don’t Launch Prematurely — The Washington Post recently reported that the Obama administration went ahead with the planned October 1 launch of the website despite insufficient testing. Additional time and testing would have uncovered and provided the opportunity to correct many of the site’s endemic problems. Some knew there would be problems when they launched the site, but leadership made the decision to launch anyway. They sacrificed the trust and confidence of millions of people for the politics of meeting a deadline. That was a hard lesson to learn.

It goes without saying that planning ahead to allow enough time is critical, but the practice and discipline of quality assurance is also widely underestimated. At a recent gathering of pharma/healthcare agencies on the topic of quality assurance (QA), it was apparent that many agencies are still struggling to reach digital maturity. It’s difficult because technology is such a moving target, but agencies that don’t have a dedicated quality assurance group would likely have made the same mistakes as healthcare.gov, if not worse. QA is not as sexy or exciting as creative, but clearly it is critical.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and Healthcare.gov failed to impress. The problems with the site will likely be fixed, but the bad taste in consumers’ mouths will take much longer to overcome.

By taking a carefully planned approach to the design of your pharma website, working with the right partners, and planning the appropriate time for development and quality assurance, you can ensure a great end-user experience and positive outcomes for your pharma website.

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