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August 11, 2017

How 4 hospitals are using 'design thinking' to foster innovation

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    Read Advisory Board's take on this story.

    Hospitals are increasingly embracing "design thinking"—a human-centered approach toward innovation and design that's based on input from health care providers on the floor, Amitha Kalaichandran writes for the New York Times' "Well." 

    The method behind 'design-thinking'

    According to Kalaichandran, design thinking is an approach toward innovation that was originally created and used in the business world to develop new products. However, hospitals—which have long relied on administrator input for design—are increasingly relying on health care providers who work day-to-day in the hospital space to develop innovative ideas, and to collaborate with designers on the final product, Kalaichandran writes.

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    Kalaichandran cites a 2016 report that assessed how a health care system can implement design thinking and identified three key aspects of the approach: 

    • Empathy for the user, who in this scenario would be a patient or health care provider;
    • Collaboration with an interdisciplinary team; and
    • Prompt prototyping of the innovation.

    Further, the report determined that for a product to be useful, all stakeholders need to have a clear and comprehensive understanding of the problems the product aims to address. Thomas Fisher, one of the report's authors and director of the Minnesota Design Center at the University of Minnesota, said the approach was particularly "useful for when we need a paradigm shift, for instance when something is fundamentally broken about a service." He added, "It allows for the creative, multidisciplinary thinking around solving the issue."

    Design thinking in action

    Kalaichandran spotlights several instances of design thinking in action at various hospitals and health system.

    For instance, at the hospital where she works, Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, the ED team implemented an innovative idea from a nurse to easily identify the team leader in trauma cases by having that individual wear a bright, easy-to-spot orange vest. The nurse's idea resulted from trauma simulation "in which a huddle of highly stressed emergency room staff members spoke over one another and there were no clear roles. According to Kalaichandran, the trauma team says the change "has helped clarify who's in charge and strengthened communication among members."

    Meanwhile, Bon Ku—an ED physician and director of Thomas Jefferson University's Health Design Lab—said his lab, which relies on input from health care providers and medical students, has produced several successful innovations, including the CareCube—a toy-like object featuring six facial expressions, which correspond to traditional pain scores—that children can use to score their pain levels. Ku's team is currently working with a group of medical and architecture students, to develop a new digital mapping tool to assess how patients and providers move and interact within the ED, with the hope that the tool will help curb wait times and facilitate communication.

    Researchers at McGill University discovered hospital workers were more likely to wash their hands when a sink was in close proximity to a patient diagnosed with Clostridium difficile, a highly contagious, difficult-to-treat infection. As a result, according to a study on the design-thinking project, the university has moved most clinical care to a different location in the hospital building where sinks are placed in clear view.

    Joyce Lee, a physician and former designer, co-leads an interdisciplinary collaborative named Health Design By Us at the University of Michigan. According to Kalaichandran, that collaborative supported a patient-designed mobile system for diabetes care, called Nightscout, that makes it easier to track and report glucose levels. And Diana Anderson, a doctor and architect, in 2016 co-founded Clinicians for Design, an international network of various health care providers that offers digital resources and hosts online discussions and workshops aimed at improving the delivery of health care and the physical layout of the hospitals (Kalaichandran, "Well," New York Times, 8/3).                                                                                                                                                    

    Advisory Board's take

    Sonia Rhodes, Chief Experience Officer, Advisory Board, and founder of The Experience Lab

    Design thinking is at the heart of staging what we call big "E" Experience— creating meaningful and memorable Experiences for and with team members, providers, patients, and guests. Just as goods are made and services are delivered, Experiences must be staged—with clarity of intention and orchestration.

    The "easy-to-spot garment" in the emergency department is a perfect example of that staging. It sets a clear picture of who is leading the performance and allows for others to step squarely into their own roles.

    As health care leaders, we are always "on stage" and must be aware of how our people, processes, and physical places come together for our patients. Every day, we must choose how we show up and shine in our roles.

    Health care organizations must be intentional in how they design Experience. That's why six visionary health care organizations—Cedars-Sinai Medical Network in California, UnityPoint Health in Iowa, Northwell Health in New York, Reading Health System in Pennsylvania, Vidant Health in North Carolina, and our own Advisory Board—are taking part in The Experience Lab's inaugural  year-long Experience design collaborative journey to transform their organizations from the inside out.  Using the lens of humanity and a principled approach, together we are LEADING for the future, LOOKING through new eyes, LIVING into bold new ideas, and LOVING the work we are honored to do.

    Try stepping into the roles of others in your organization and take a look around. What would you change? What problems could you solve in a new way? How could you engage with your teams to make the Experience better for patients, providers, care givers and guests? All our world is a stage, and every day we have the opportunity to bring our best works of art to life.

    To learn more about The Experience Lab, contact

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