Healthcare by design: How your health system can use design thinking to solve complex problems

Changes in the healthcare industry have prompted industry leaders to be more creative in how they tackle long-term challenges, including improving the patient experience and patient outcomes, especially as healthcare becomes more consumer-driven. One of these new approaches is a concept called "design thinking."

According to global design firm IDEO, whose CEO Tim Brown coined the term “design thinking,” the concept can transform the way organizations develop products, services, processes, and strategy. It “utilizes elements from the designer's toolkit," including empathy and experimentation, and “brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable."

One such institution applying the concept is Columbia, Maryland-based MedStar Health with its own MedStar Institute for Innovation. MI2, as it's known, “catalyzes innovation energy" by helping its nearly 40,000 providers “unlock their potential to create and improve." It does so, in part, by encouraging the concept of design thinking, a process perhaps also best described as an improvisational approach to problem solving.

At MedStar they're using design thinking to find creative solutions for chronic disease care and employing the process to develop an individualized approach to patient education. Since the middle of 2016 they’ve offered a course on the subject to both MedStar associates and outside providers that spreads the word across their organization and beyond.

Health system adopters

The many health systems that have embraced design thinking as a means of solving complex problems include:

  • Oakland, California-based Kaiser Permanente Innovation Consultancy, which is using the approach to bring “fresh methods" to that institution.
  • Stanford Health Care, which has incorporated design thinking into the development process for a new hospital slated to open in 2018.
  • Johns Hopkins Medicine, where experts from their Technology Innovation Center have applied design thinking to develop dozens of new software programs, including one group chat application intended to keep providers in the loop while on the move and caring for the patient.
  • The Cleveland Clinic, where the theme of their eighth annual Patient Experience Summit was “Empathy by Design." The conference highlighted design thinking “as a new approach to serving both our own caregivers and patients," explained Cleveland Clinic Chief Experience Officer Adrienne Boissy, MD, MA. Boissy said the idea was to propel medical professionals from the classic ways of thinking about patient experience and to reimagine that journey through empathy.
alt alt

Empathy at the core

The concept of empathy “is at the core of design thinking," said Marty Vian, director of user experience at Fuse by Cardinal Health, the company's innovation center. “It's all about going out and exploring problems in context: If I understand what the patient or the physician is going through and can connect with their experience in a deep way, then I can draw on that empathy when I'm thinking of possible solutions." Vian said Fuse employs the design thinking methodology with healthcare organizations to “bring a fresh and unbiased perspective" to whatever concerns or issues those organizations might be facing.

Vian said empathy is one of the key differences with the concept of design thinking, since the approach is human-centered versus user-centered. User-centered design focuses on how to help people do their jobs or tasks better, easier and faster, whereas human-centered design focuses on how to help make people’s lives better.

Design thinking in practice

Design thinking, Vian said, often includes brainstorming sessions in rooms full of whiteboards littered with sticky notes. It's a collaborative process that involves ideating and prototyping, and then eventually testing and proving a solution. And yes, he said, while companies like Apple, Google or Procter & Gamble often come to mind first when thinking of those using the approach, there is great opportunity for design thinking in healthcare as the industry becomes more consumer-driven.

Any health system or healthcare organization with a problem to solve can certainly put design thinking to work. “You just have to connect the dots across perspectives," he said. “It's not always easy, but it's worth it in the end to make a product, program or service that works better for the people you’re serving."

The Institute of Healthcare Design Thinking

The Institute is a collective that makes sense of the intersection of voice and experience, through the lens of design.

Design thinking primer

1.6MB – PDF