In a recent interview, Bowhead’s co-founder Dr. Rhea Mehta sat down with Zen Tharani, a health system data strategist and Canadian innovator, to discuss how to bring our head and heart together to design for the future of healthcare. 

Zen brings over 20+ years of experience to his current consultancy work supporting organizations to build effective strategies, solutions, and sustainable capabilities for digital health innovation. He was previously the Executive Director of Digital Health Strategic Initiatives and the Digital Health Collaboration Office for the Ministry of Health of British Columbia, and has also spent 5 years at eHealth Saskatchewan leading their health data management team, and advising EHR development for the Canadian province. 

Despite this extensive work within the system, Zen’s inspiration for the future came from outside of the healthcare ecosystem. In the clip below Zen shares how his time volunteering at Jamatkhanas, cultural gathering places for the Ismaili community, influenced his vision for the future of healthcare.

This conversation led us to the question: What would happen if we placed joy at the center of our design process in healthcare?

Designing digital experiences around joy and empowerment can be transformative in how we manage chronic illness across populations. Smartwatches and wearables have made it possible to seamlessly gather our health data throughout the day, removing the need to manually log information. The focus now becomes understanding how we can turn this data into meaningful and empowering insights that resonate with users. This work begins with centering patient experiences, and understanding what empowerment looks like for different users. 

This empowerment is key to ensuring people consistently return to digital products to track their health and see improvements overtime, which further reinforces healthy behaviours. Gamification techniques like earning points, collecting badges, or interacting with virtual characters can further improve someone’s motivation and sustain prolonged app usage. To dive deeper, explore this gamification technique taxonomy with descriptions of 17 gamification techniques that have been applied to self-management apps. 

Adaptive gamification tools have also been explored to support patients recovering from heart failure by assessing a patient’s level of understanding and offering information and behaviour change prompts to address their specific literacy gaps and share personalized self-management strategies. This approach is less overwhelming than receiving a handful of pamphlets upon discharge, and supports patients to learn at their own pace. While these techniques are well studied, a research review of the gamification features in 56 Android diabetes management apps on the Google Playstore revealed that these techniques are scarcely used and that their potential has not been fully realized. 

Authentic patient engagement is key

Ultimately, understanding patients is at the core of this work and asks us to consider not only what the user needs while managing illness, but also imagine the most empowering experience possible. Bringing patients into our design process is the best way to ensure any digital health experience will seamlessly integrate into a user’s daily routine and add value. 

Authentic patient engagement means designing processes that bring patients in and understand their pain points rather than asking them to choose between baked solutions. 

In the clip below, Rhea and Zen discuss the current state of patient-centered design and how we can do this work better.

There is no joy without justice 

As we design these tools we must also consider important questions about equity and how to ensure this new era of digital health tools does not create a two-tiered system. Our experiences managing the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the ways digital tools create barriers to care despite their promises of increased accessibility. 

A research study conducted during the first year of the pandemic compared the demographics of patients who completed telemedicine visits against those who missed or cancelled appointments. Of the 1000 visits that were tracked, over half (54%) were cancelled. These no-show appointments belonged to predominantly uninsured patients who were also more likely to be from minority groups. These patients were 3x less likely to be able to connect with their doctor for a virtual video visit, and this jumped to 5x less likely if they did not speak English. 


As digital health accelerates we must design for justice and ensure these tools work for our society’s most vulnerable, who will need support to build their digital literacy. Storytelling is one tool that is underutilized in traditional healthcare spaces but can be so powerful in understanding the needs and experiences of patients. A research study on designing with empathy compared the design solutions from a group of students who used patient stories in their design process with a similar group who didn’t engage with patients. Stories not only motivated students to be more engaged in the design process, but facilitated the generation of fresh and original ideas that supported the whole person rather than just the obvious symptoms. 

Authentically engaging with patients using stories can reveal opportunities to design for more equitable access. For example, by understanding why patients struggle with adoption we are able to design custom onboarding programs, or offer low-tech options to book appointments to ensure we leave no one behind in the shift to digital care. This patient-centered approach prioritizes equity and must become gold-standard as we bring more digital experiences into healthcare. 

Need a healthy dose of inspiration?

Zen is the newest expert in our growing growing futures library where we've interviewed global experts from over 7 countries to understand the trends and tensions in the future of digital health.

Learn more about Zen's work in the clip below and head over to the library where you can filter by the topics that impact your work! 

You can also sign up to receive our quarterly Bowhead Futures Digest: a newsletter for leaders looking to learn, debate, and co-create a future where technology & data empower our health.