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The iPhone Of Health Insurance Cards

Why is the one tangible thing about our insurance so flimsily made? Here’s an alternative, imagined by Smart Design.

Open up your wallet, and pull out your health insurance card. Now look at it. In a patient-hostile health care system filled with mysterious billings and byzantine regulations, this piece of plastic is probably the most tangible connection you have to your health care provider. Yet it’s so flimsy, so utilitarian, so cryptic in the information it provides: just another example of a system that puts itself above the patients it is meant to support.

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But it doesn’t have to be that way. For Body Week, we asked New York-based innovation design firm Smart Design to come up with a design concept that they thought could tangibly improve the health care system. What Smart Design came up with was the iPhone of insurance cards: a smart insurance card that not only makes patients feel more connected to their provider, it is useful to both patients and providers.

“When you think about the health care space, what you quickly see is that almost everything is intangible,” says Brandy Fowler, associate director of insights and strategy at Smart Design. “Patients might get a bill for something, but not know why. Or they go out of network without know it. But the one thing that is tangible in health care is their insurance card. If it’s in your wallet, you know that if worse comes to worse, at least you’re insured.”


A Card Made Of Gold?
The first thing Smart Design wanted to do was improve that tangibility. When you reach into your wallet, your insurance card should feel like an American Express Platinum Card, not the membership card of a video store that went out of business a decade ago. You should be able to tell it apart from your other cards by touch, because in emergencies, your insurance card is the most important thing in your wallet. Smart Design’s take on the insurance card imagines a card that, while thin enough to fit into your wallet, uses more precious materials than simple plastic and cardboard: steel, silver, even gold.

A Card That Does More
The other problem with insurance cards is functionality. Health insurance cards are mostly useless to patients. They might be printed with your name, membership number, and co-pay, but existing insurance cards are mostly designed to make data entry easier for health care providers. Smart Design wants to marry the needs of providers with a more useful, patient-centric design.

“We decided that your insurance card should be filled with more information than just what was printed on it,” says Jamie Nicholson, Smart Design’s senior brand strategist. In fact, there should barely be anything printed on it at all, short of the bare minimum information that doctors need to treat a patient if he falls ill: his name, and his membership number. Everything else is stored in the cloud, with the card acting almost like a physical link to the patient’s digital profile. To enter a patient into their system, a health care provider would only need to tap the card against a reader. The same card could be used when a doctor sees her patient to project on the office wall that patient’s medical history, including statistics, bloodwork, and more.

If this sounds high concept, especially for the bureaucratic and slow-to-evolve U.S. health care system, that’s because it is. “If you look at the concept as a whole, yes, this is very much aspirational,” Nicholson says.

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But it’s not an all-or-nothing thing. Smart Design points out that even just working to make patients’ insurance cards feel more tangible and thoughtfully designed could make people feel more at ease within the health care system. Your insurance card is your lifeline, the thing you hold onto for dear life to try to navigate the maelstrom of modern-day medical care. Even if that lifeline doesn’t do anything else, shouldn’t it feel less flimsy, and more thoughtfully designed?

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