Why Health Execs Need Design Thinking

November 12, 2018
Michelle Histand

It’s the hot new skill showing up across the resumes and job postings-but what does if have to do with healthcare?

I had a ninth-grade science teacher (hi, Mr. Capatosto!) who challenged us to think of something that doesn’t change. We eagerly shouted things out like rocks and mountains, but were quickly told “nope, they both erode.” And I remember, at the end, not being able to think of a single thing. Now I’m going to give you a similar challenge and ask you to think of something that hasn’t been designed. I’ll give you a few minutes.

Related article: Ten Simple Ways Healthcare Providers Can Make Patients Happier

How did you do? Was “nature” one of your answers? I was recently in Yellowstone National Park with my family and it was breathtaking. As city folk we were surrounded by more nature than we’ve ever seen in one place, but even amidst all that beauty, it was clear that someone sure took a lot of time to design the roads we drove on and the hiking trails where we clutched our cans of bear spray. Did you think of any others?

Other than a few instances in nature where humans have not intervened, and the brush grows wild and untamed, everything is designed. Let’s look at the healthcare spectrum: emergency room check-in, medical charts, equipment and labels, the pre-authorization process. It’s all been designed-but often, poorly. And this is why we need design thinking.

The basics of design thinking

Design thinking is an approach that helps us do a better job of creating products, processes, and services. Many times, it’s an approach housed under our innovation practice because we see it as a formula by which to change the way business is done, a methodology that helps our teams approach business in new ways and create value differently. It’s a five-step process often illustrated by a graphic like the above image.

What’s unique and should interest all of us in health care are the first two phases, empathize and define. Empathize means understanding the audience for whom you are designing. For example, rather than the business side of the house sitting in a room and deciding what patients need, this approach encourages actually talking to patients. It sounds so simple on the surface but how many of you do it as a regular practice? Maybe some of you already are or maybe you’re starting to. And this is why design thinking is becoming a hot ticket.

We’re in a changing landscape. We are all savvier consumers, better educated and attuned to the choices available to us. If something isn’t working for us we’re quick to move on rather than accept the status quo. Some things in health care have changed in response to that-others have not. We are a position to think about our customers more than ever before. Design thinking helps us do that.

In the empathize phase of design thinking we spend time talking to our customers, observing them, putting ourselves in their shoes, trying the things we’re asking them to do. Only then can we really understand and define their point of view-what they need. That’s the define phase. In this phase we are making sure we have a clear line of sight into the opportunity and framing it: this customer has this need because of this problem. How often are we reactive, rushing to solve an issue and using a band-aid only to wonder why it doesn’t get better? This helps stop that.

Then we can move on to the design phase. This is the phase where we can start to develop solutions that might actually work.  I say “might” and you may be thinking, I’m going to spend all this time talking to customers only to develop what “might” work? This is where the tail end of the process, the prototype and test phase, gets some love.

You’ve heard the word prototype-have you done it or supported others doing it in your organization? This is where we choose the solutions we believe will best solve the defined opportunity, and we make rough, low-cost versions of them to test on the people who will eventually use them. Rather than spending a year developing a new app and then holding our breath while it’s launched and barely used, this is about mocking up some screens with little to no coding and having people try them. Then, we can see quickly what works about our navigation and what doesn’t. This can work for tech, for products, and for processes. It can save you a ton of time and money, and it shows your customers that you care about their feedback.

Related article: Five Ways to Improve the Patient Experience

Design thinking is that simple, yet can be difficult to implement in organizations that are used to doing things “the same old way”. The good news is that there are tools for each of these phases to make them easier and there is a ton of great information available online, much of it for free. I would recommend starting with Ideo’s Field Guide to Human-Centered Design, full of practical tools and case studies. And tune in next month, where I’ll do a deep dive on a couple of my favorite tools.  Until then, start by noticing all of the design around you-it’s everywhere!

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