Xinyu Liu develops Teva’s digital products and devices to help both patients and healthcare professionals. Here she explains why her role is an unusual one in a pharmaceutical company, why she sees her job as being an advocate for patients, and how her personal connection to asthma and COPD has fuelled her passion to work in this industry.
People are usually surprised to find out that I work for a pharmaceutical company. My job is to get a detailed understanding of a condition like asthma and how it affects patient’s lives, and then create digital products or apps that address unmet needs. It’s fair to say that this is unusual in the pharma industry!
Listening to patients is an essential part of my job. It helps me pick up on problems that may otherwise be missed. For example, asthma patients have told me that when they are having an attack their hand-eye coordination can get worse. This means that they may struggle to do things like pressing down an inhaler canister. This is vital information that I use to design things differently. It may sound obvious to consider the needs of users when designing something, but there is a lot of bad design in health technology, as well as things in general.
I’m constantly amazed by the statistics on asthma and COPD. A lot of people know that asthma is a chronic disease of the lungs, which causes inflammation and narrowing in the air passages. They probably don’t know that an estimated 339 million people had asthma globally in 20161 and sadly more than 417,000 people died from it2. COPD is probably less understood. It’s a progressive and life-threatening lung disease that causes breathlessness and can predispose the person to other serious illnesses. Roughly 251 million1 people live with COPD worldwide, with over 3 million dying from it in 20162.
Both asthma and COPD can have a big impact on a person’s life. A lot of people will get occasional asthma flare-ups when they exercise or because of seasonal changes, such as hot or cold weather. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Severe cases of asthma can be very debilitating.
I’ve seen the impact that asthma and COPD can have. My mom, who passed in 2019, had both illnesses. When she experienced severe asthma flare-ups at night she couldn’t sleep. It was very scary when I was child. She would keep coughing and all I could do was pat her back and give her cold water, which would help open up her airways.
We had to get rid of our family dog because my mom’s asthma was so severe. My mom was allergic to the dog fur which triggered asthma flare-ups. During hot or cold weather she could barely leave our house in case it triggered a flare. Asthma impacts lots of other people, including family members of patients. I know from my own experience that this can turn them into caregivers, and it’s one of the main reasons I’m interested in working in this area.
It’s very empowering to design tools that potentially can change a person’s life. Even things that seem minor, like where you put a button, or how you display information on a screen can have a big impact on people, their decision-making and their health. It’s the most rewarding part of my role.
Good digital designs are invisible. When you are using something that has been designed well you don’t even notice it. It just meets your needs and fits effortlessly into your life. You definitely can’t have an ego – you create a concept, you get attached to it, but users may not like the idea. You might have to start again or find another way. The feedback is essential because it helps you design a better product.
I’m artistic and practical. I’m very interested in colour and shapes to describe my thoughts and ideas. I also have a practical side. When I was a child, I liked taking objects apart to understand how they worked. Early in my career I switched from industrial design to digital design for apps and websites. Then I joined a design studio and worked with companies helping design solutions to help treat conditions such as schizophrenia.
I’m excited for the future! The technology used in health apps and predictive analytics can help patients better manage their conditions and ultimately improve their lives. The data that is generated from the apps can also help doctors give better care. The opportunities are endless!
1. Analysis of the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016. Lancet 2017; 390: 1211–59.
2. WHO Global Health Estimates 2016 (Disease burden by Cause, Age, Sex, by Country and by Region, 2000-2016).