Design Thinking in Health Sector
- Design thinking is an approach to innovation that produces more-comprehensive solutions than other process-improvement strategies.
- Design thinking involves four main components: empathy, multidisciplinary thinking, rapid solutions deployment and continual improvement.
- Health plans and other healthcare organizations can apply design thinking to solve some of the industry’s most urgent challenges, such as improving the customer experience.
Many leading hospitals are starting to focus more on understanding the patient experience to solve these kinds of problems, as well as to improve overall patient experience and to lower costs. Yet it’s not always easy to get key stakeholders to consider nonclinical aspects of this type of work.
One of the most promising approaches for understanding patients’ experiences has been design thinking, a creative, human-centered problem-solving approach that leverages empathy, collective idea generation, rapid prototyping, and continuous testing to tackle complex challenges. Unlike traditional approaches to problem solving, design thinkers take great efforts to understand patients and their experiences before coming up with solutions. This thorough understanding of patients (for example, those who regularly miss appointments) is what guides the rest of the process. And because design thinking involves continuously testing and refining ideas, feedback is sought early and often, especially from patients.
Design thinking has already taken hold in health care, leading to the development of new products and the improved design of spaces. Yet it remains underused in addressing other important challenges, such as patient transportation, communication issues between clinicians and patients, and differential treatment of patients due to implicit bias, to name just a few. If more leaders embrace design thinking, they can leverage a deeper understanding of patients to solve such problems, achieving better clinical outcomes, improved patient experience, and lower costs along the way.
Designing a Patient-Centered Experience
How might design thinking be applied to the persistent and costly problem of no-shows? In Mary’s case, she couldn’t explain her concerns through the standard patient experience survey, which is initiated after an appointment and which comprises general questions focused on the medical visit. Were it not for the hospital administrator’s initiative to ask Mary what was going on, her concerns may have gone both unnoticed and unaddressed.
This tailored, human-centered approach of problem solving is the foundation of design thinking. Hospitals versed in design thinking would identify this general challenge and then assign a team or task force (ideally a multidisciplinary one) to spend weeks or even a few months studying the patients it affects. The team would use qualitative research methods, such as surveys, focus groups, and observations, to better understand people’s experiences. They would seek out patterns and aim to define the real problem at hand. For instance, a team investigating several no-shows would quickly see that many cases do not necessarily involve a patient’s forgetfulness or time management. They’d find that the issue faced by patients like Mary is often more socioemotional than organizational.
After this phase, the team would brainstorm possible solutions, and then begin rapid prototyping to test them. Depending on the proposed solution, a prototype could be anything from a physical mock-up to a skit or a flowchart. For example, if the team wanted to design a screening process to identify individuals with transport-related concerns, they could design a simple computerized simulation that illustrates how that process might look and feel to both patients and staff. Once created, this prototype would be tested by relevant stakeholders and perhaps even outside parties to collect critical feedback. Often, the feedback indicates when or how to modify solutions, or whether to go back and gather more information. The result is a solution focused on what will most help the patient.
Addressing a Broader Spectrum of Patient Challenges
There are already a few promising examples of design thinking being used to create a better experience for patients. For instance, the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Mayo Clinic used design thinking to reimagine prenatal care. They wanted to better meet the expectations and needs of expectant mothers, who desired a greater emphasis on the emotional experience of pregnancy, rather than just the clinical side of it. Through interviews with and observations of local expectant mothers, the design thinking team learned that it was extremely important for these women to have a sense of community. So, the department created online care communities, facilitated by nurses and other pregnancy advisers. The result was an overall improvement in how prepared and empowered these expectant mothers felt.
Design thinking can be used to address challenges in a variety of domains related to the patient experience. Consider reimagining the emergency-room waiting experience. Because care is prioritized based on the severity of a patient’s condition, wait times are difficult to predict. Patients and their families often spend hours waiting to be seen and treated. Design thinking may uncover new ways of helping patients feel comfortable and safe during such long waits. An approach that starts with investigating the patients’ perspectives, including their greatest pain points, may give administrators ideas for how to make the emergency room experience more bearable.
The benefits the Design thinking vision can bring to healthcare are many, but the benefits related to patients are probably those that cause more social concern, precisely because it is something that affects us all, because at some point in our life will have to go through that.
Among the benefits design thinking application has brought to healthcare, we can highlight the user experience improvement when interacting with machines (reducing anxiety and fear), the improvement of the professional-user communication (the doctor-patient communication or pharmacist-consumer) or the increase of comfort and mobility of patients.
- Shifts to Value-based Care
Healthcare is moving beyond the walls of hospitals and into communities and the role of healthcare providers is shifting. We’re seeing new questions like, what do we do about loneliness; as it turns out loneliness is as much of a killer as smoking and diabetes. These types of questions lead to a better understanding of patients and creating whole ecosystems of care.
- Shift from Being Reactive to Proactive
Everyone is empowered to get to know their bodies and their health before anything is wrong with them. Health is becoming this process of self-exploration, which creates entry points for people into healthcare offerings. We’re seeing a shift from healthcare to consumer products that can help us better understand who we are.
- Balance High Regulation with Experimentation
Privacy and risk committees often block tools out of security controls. But there’s opportunity to invite people to be fully informed about the choices they make in terms of the technology they use and give them the choice to opt into the tools. We should have high standards of privacy and make sure our tools are secure, but there’s still room to experiment and use informed consent to prototype tools that may not be ready for primetime yet.