Where empathy meets innovation: Pilot program connects families with resources for special needs


Family Compass is a pilot program with the Special Needs Initiative, connecting families to reliable information. / Image: Adobe Stock

I practice human-centered design. To me, that means using empathy to connect with people, understand their problems and help them solve them. I’m especially interested in the ways technology can connect people to the health care they need.

One of the ways we’re doing that is with a pilot program called Family Compass. My team at Optum partners with the UnitedHealthcare Special Needs Initiative (SNI) on the FamilyLink project. Family Compass is a vital part of that effort.

Any diagnosis or treatment program comes with a lot of questions. Sometimes there are dozens of possible answers. When a child has been diagnosed with special needs, what sources can a parent or caregiver trust?

That’s where the idea for Family Compass came from — the families themselves. It’s a way to use technology to connect people to the resources and services they need.

Kevin Tan is a senior director of product development with UnitedHealthcare’s SNI. “For families managing care for children with special needs, there’s a lot of information out there,” he says. “But it takes a lot of time to sort through it and figure out what’s credible.”

Developing a solution

To help families solve this problem, we’ve built a platform to provide reliable content the moment families need it, no matter where they are in their health care journey. We’re now in the testing and learning phase as we create a one-stop spot of resources and support.

Advances in technology have led to the creation of a number of different content delivery systems. But few if any are built to deal with the specific challenges of health care communications. We needed to develop a next-generation content management and delivery system that is specific to health care.

We set out to build a system that would streamline the process of finding answers at each stage of the health care journey. We don’t want to overwhelm or confuse users. To make Family Compass relevant, we’re aggregating all the types of information a family might need, grouped by condition.

To develop the content for Family Compass, we’re partnering with credible, trusted individuals and organizations and drawing on evidence-based resources. We’re also making sure Family Compass can be integrated with broader care management efforts. That means expanding access to include not just families but also their care teams.

How it works

A family can sign in and navigate directly to resources specific to their child’s condition. We’re launching with content related to four conditions: autism, cerebral palsy, intellectual and developmental disabilities, and Down syndrome.

Families can access information on how to use health care benefits and details on the types of specialists or tests a child might need. They can also find resources regarding public funding, alternative financial support, relevant nonprofits, education assistance and more.

“For example, families can find guidance on what to bring to an individual education planning meeting in the school setting,” says Tan. “They can find information on inclusive activities for their children.”

To avoid confusion or information overload, the content is segmented into digestible bits of information that we call “cards.” While Family Compass is still in the piloting phase, early results show the content is resonating with families. On average, each family has engaged with 3.7 cards.

“Oh my gosh, where’s this been?”
Families who have interacted with Family Compass have praised the user experience and the content. Some who are further along on their health care journey, have exclaimed, “Oh my gosh, where’s this been?” They say a tool like this would be very helpful when first receiving a diagnosis.


The content for Family Compass is created with a holistic view of the patient and their family’s needs. It aims to help families navigate health care challenges from diagnosis through the transition to adulthood. This important request came from SNI families.

The system is also a resource for care teams. Family advisors or providers can review content and easily send links to families to help address a specific need.

“It really helps us be more efficient as well as connect our families with the information and resources that are relevant to their journey through health care,” says Tan.

On the horizon — content intelligence tools

We’re constantly looking for innovative ways to curate the content. So we built into the system functions that support continuous improvement.

For example, if a family runs into content they find challenging, they have the ability to flag it. Flagging the content sends a message to their advisor. The advisor can immediately engage and provide some level of assistance related to the particular piece of information.

As more families sign in, we’ll be able to apply content intelligence tools that will let us know which content they interact with, when and why. We’ll be able to learn more about the impact on their level of engagement, both positive and negative. This information is the underpinnings of great data analytics.

We envision a future where we’re running speech analytics, like speech to text analytics. And we’ll be able to use advanced engines to predict situations in which families will need help. The data will help us serve up the help or most relevant content within Family Compass.

Family Compass is a component of Family Link — a persistent chat platform that lets families send and receive messages on their schedule instead of spending time on hold or sending and receiving faxes.

Learn more about Family Link and how it is helping improve one-to-one care coordination.

About the author:

Fillman new headshotJohn Fillman
Innovation Lead

John Fillman is an innovation lead within Optum Technology and is in charge of designing a new UHC digital experience that will help patients interact with the health care system. John brings a human-centric design expertise into the patient-centric world in a way that makes health care work better for everyone. You can read John’s full profile on our People page.

7 thoughts on “Where empathy meets innovation: Pilot program connects families with resources for special needs

  1. Thanks for writing about this. We want all children with special health care needs to have access to medical home care. Part of medical home care is shared decision making, having the parent and the PCP share in the medical decisions made about the child. The Family Compass helps to provide parents with knowledge and resources to enhance this partnership and the care of their child.

  2. As an Aunt of a special needs child this article is intriguing and sounds like Optum is moving in the right direction.

    The world of healthcare can be confusing and on top of that these parents and caregivers must advocate for their child at every turn with little resources that connect one another. I have seen it first hand with my niece and her parents as they try and get tests set up to create a health plan to help her thrive in life.

    As an employee of UHG/ORx, I am so pleased to see we are working through this journey for our members and their dependents. I look forward to updates of its success.

    Thank you John from a concerned and loving Cri Du Chat Aunt.

  3. Congratulations to you, Fillman, and the SNI team for launching this great service! It’s amazing to see the positive impact it is making for our members and their families.

  4. Great to see this being highlighted. The engineering team within Innovation Research and Development worked closely with the innovation leads and SNI and developed the solution from the initial stages in POC and then the pilot. It was very enlightening and humbling to know how this was helping so many families.

  5. As a special needs parent and an employee of UnitedHealth Group, this is something I would find extremely valuable and utilize on a regular basis to help manage care. I look forward to watching how this progresses and seeing the end result. If there is ever an opportunity that presents itself where I could assist as you roll out the program, please feel free to reach out to me.

Leave a Reply