How to “Think” Differently When Designing Healthcare Solutions

Michael P. Pietrzak, MD, 26 July 2016

“Think about it.” That is how we usually approach a problem. Or get a group together to “think about it”. Unfortunately, simply “thinking about it” to come up with a solution often draws a blank (we all get writers block) or results in an inadequate answer.

Having split my professional career as a physician, designer and developer the relevance of design thinking has been an awakening for me. Design thinking has evolved a methodology not only to help generate ideas, but to ensure those ideas are actually solutions the end-user will find beneficial. Instead of generating random ideas, design thinking leads us down a path where one first learns about the problem and gains an understanding of those needing the solution, then one turns to generating ideas for solutions. This approach supports the old adage “Necessity is the mother of invention”.  By putting yourself in the shoes of the user (empathy) we can understand the “necessity”. As managers, leaders, consultants, designers and clinicians we are often put in the position of coming up with solutions for others. We need to fully understand and develop the empathy for those we are inventing or developing solutions. That is just the first step.

Design thinking then takes use through a process of ideation, prototyping, testing, fixing and refining to get to our optimized solutions whether it is product design or something else. We learn that “failure” in design is expected and leads to good things. The trick is to fail early, cheaply, and learn from it.

I have found that elements of design thinking can be applied to just about any field across the healthcare spectrum, including design of medical equipment, healthcare processes, grant writing, marketing and strategic planning for the system. In designing a new device for administering IV solutions empathy would be gained by observing the users setting up the IV solutions and delivering them in the patient settings. Learning the difficulties and challenges they face. Finding out where there errors occur. Listening to what the users have to say. All before brainstorming how to develop a new system. This would be followed by very simple and rough prototypes that users could “respond” to. However, it all starts with the empathy.

Use the principle of empathy to help “design” the answer to the problem — always making sure your response includes your understanding of the question, challenges, or needs. In a grant proposal this means describing the problem and the importance of the problem with attention to detail and depth. This tells the funders you “get it”. Then demonstrate that your “design” of the research study addresses the need you uncovered.

Design thinking can make innovation and problem solving not only more effective but also fun.

The MedStar Institute for Innovation video course in design thinking for health professionals elaborates how design research is guided by “empathy”. It walks viewers through how to apply this to our understanding of our patients, how this inform our brainstorming and prototyping, and how to leverage the IDEO design thinking process to catalyze innovation in the healthcare environment. Imagine what we can do.  Learn more about the course here.

Michael P. Pietrzak, MD is a Senior Fellow at MedStar Institute for Innovation and Co-Director of the Design Thinking Course for Medical Professionals at MI

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