How Healthcare Organizations Can Start to Use Design Thinking

Marketing Specialist

Design thinking. It’s a popular buzzword in HR and operations circles these days. But while you might associate “design” with creative fields or Silicon Valley startups, there’s a new movement to use design thinking in healthcare organizations. As a group of researchers encouraged in the journal Elsevier in 2015, “the business community has learned the value of design thinking as a way to innovate in addressing people’s needs – and health systems could benefit enormously from doing the same.”

Let’s explore what design thinking really means (beyond the buzz), how using design thinking can drive innovation and how healthcare organizations can get started.

What Design Thinking Means

The design firm IDEO defines design thinking as “simple mindset shifts or ways of asking questions differently — a new way to look at problems ... Design thinking encourages organizations to focus on the people they're creating for and leads to human-centered products, services, and internal processes.” 

Healthcare organizations are built around providing excellent patient care, so a human-centered approach seems like a natural fit. “Design thinking offers healthcare organizations two important things: A mandate to consider patients and other key people in their care orbit and the permission to solve problems creatively by combining the rigor of research with the agility of problem solving practices long employed by professionals in other domains,” says Sharon Kim, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.

Alice Shade, CEO of SentryHealth, says that design thinking “should lead to asking better questions” to help healthcare organizations “understand what problems we’re trying to solve and who benefits from what we’re doing.”

How Design Thinking Drives Innovation

Design thinking can drive innovation in many different sectors and departments, from billing to patient scheduling. But Shade says the most exciting opportunities lie in patient experience. Here’s an example: “We all can relate to going to the doctor, being told you need to do this and that. Then you're left with, well now what do I do? How will I know what this is going to cost me? Do I just cross my fingers and hope it's not too bad when I get the bill?”

Shade says innovating around the patient experience could “go a huge way in satisfaction in healthcare.” She recommends asking: “Is there a way to improve this experience?” 

The Future of Design Thinking for Healthcare

Moving from the status quo to more innovative practices may be difficult for some healthcare organizations, Shade says. “We’re a very reactive, slow-moving industry, and we tend to follow rules. We have a hard time thinking about a different way of applying creative thought to problems.”

She sees the future of healthcare anchored in two core issues: affordability and access. These two areas could certainly benefit from some healthy disruption and new ideas, and she recommends looking outside the industry for inspiration. She says that when she started surrounding herself with professionals outside of healthcare, she expanded her horizons and got new ideas for how to solve big problems.

But applying design thinking takes more than one innovative leader. “Train your teams and your staff, including your management teams, on what design thinking means, so that they’re beginning to think about problems in a different context,” she says.

And if you’re already using design thinking to inform your work, look for new outlets to explore and improve. “Lots of attention has been given to using design thinking to improve the design and function of health technologies or the physical layouts of hospitals, for instance, but less has focused on the more intangible aspects like overall patient experience, that ultimately drive high quality healthcare,” says Christopher G. Myers, Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins University. “I think the biggest opportunity is to start applying design thinking principles to healthcare services and experiences, rather than just products,” he says.

Shade says that there’s already a lot of important innovation happening inside healthcare organizations, and the potential for big payoffs for design-focused organizations: “How do we change from being reactive to proactive? It will be those healthcare companies that can respond to those needs and bridge that complicated dialogue between healthcare systems and the employer space that will come out ahead.”

Applying design thinking to your organization’s work doesn’t have to mean making massive overhauls. You just have to start looking for new perspectives and solutions to your major challenges.

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