5 July 2017

How Can Design Humanize Healthcare

This article was originally published on Bizzine.jp, in Japanese, as part of our Design As Strategy article series. Find the original version here.


From treatment methods, hospital experiences to medical records and insurance reimbursement, there are many opportunities areas that are hungry for improvement. While the healthcare world is becoming more and more patient centric, the design approach can help ensuring that we put people at the center of any healthcare solutions. In this article, we would like to share some principles we use when tackling healthcare challenges.

That factory we put ourselves through once a year

When you go to that yearly health check-ups, don’t you find yourself in this factory-like scene? You’re sent to room after room, person after person. Vital measuring, X-ray taking, doctor consulting; it’s quite a process. It’s incredibly efficient, and really gets the job done. However, we are not machines.

As Maggie Breslin from Mayo Clinic points out, most problems facing healthcare were perceived to be ones of technical knowledge. But increasingly, the biggest issues facing healthcare are issues of delivery. It’s not longer about what to do, but who, when, how, and where.

Healthcare is now more than just fixing the problems. On one hand we have patients’ conditions greatly benefiting from care givers that shows affection. Even patient collaboration on preventive care improves significantly. On the other hand, studies that clearly show how healthcare professionals are commonly immerse in an environment that debilitate their capacity to effectively deliver care. Monotony, unnecessary stress and the working environment needs to be reevaluated for the professionals to build the right connections with patients.

In other words, healthcare institutions should not only work well but also consider our emotions and involve us better in the process.


Healthcare, where humans take care of humans.

As it would be like in a Maslow hierarchy of needs, making things work is just the first step of the healthcare pyramid. However, from there on, it is as important to develop solutions that are reliable and functional, as it is to strive for humanized solutions.

In the past years, more and more players in the healthcare industry are taking actions to understand the people that are delivering or receiving care. Companies that provide healthcare solution, like GE and Johnson&Johnson, have internal design teams whose job goes beyond form-giving and consist in truly empathizing with healthcare providers and patients. They go to the field, understand the people they are designing for, and make sure that solutions fit with real world needs and behaviors.

Perhaps the more and more popular term “patient experience”, also gives a hint of how being functional in healthcare is not enough anymore. Taking Cleveland Clinic for an example, not only they have an office of patient experience to themselves, they also have a Chief Experience Officer appointed to ensure the quality of the care they provide. Increasingly, people are put at the center of the development process when developing new healthcare product or services.

But how exactly can healthcare be humanized by design? Here’s a few thoughts to start with.


Observe how medical tasks are actually done.

The use of a medical device should never be a challenge for the doctor conducting the work. Doctors and technicians are trained to use complicated systems and devices, but could we make these medical products easier for them to learn and use? Could we make the using medical products so simple, that there is no chance for errors during healthcare, for example, surgeries?

iLogic is a product from SuperDimension that guides doctors while “navigating” their patient’s lungs. The system is made up of a hardware console, a software and various disposable accessory kits and medical tools. Realizing that their device overly complicated to use, SuperDimension wanted to redesign the User Interface.

After multiple surgeries observations, the team realized that the interface design isn’t the only thing that needed improvement. Surgeries were also made complicated by how the procedure was done. Doctors were controlling the device with both hands and one foot, while looking away to a screen that’s not in the direction of the patient. On top of that, not having extra hands to operate the user interface, doctors were relying on assistants to operate the digital screen.

As a result, the user interface was redesigned so that it’s easy for assistants to operate the system with doctors’ verbal commands. The layout of devices were also reconfigured to make the workflow smoother. Because of the observations, the user interface of the device was truly designed to support how surgeries are done.

Co-create with healthcare providers.

Healthcare providers are sometimes overseen when patient experiences are being prioritized. But designing for providers is as important as designing for patients. After all, we are counting on healthcare providers to deliver the amazing patient experiences.

For example, when Oslo University Hospital wanted to redesign the experience of getting diagnosed with breast cancer, their hospital staffs were involved in the whole process. They played an important role in their patients’ lives and this had to be acknowledged.

After interviewing cancer patients, it turned out that patients viewed the diagnosis process very differently from the hospital. Women felt that they are already patients from the day a lump was discovered, where the hospital don’t consider them patients until the day diagnosis work starts. The challenge naturally became: how might we reduce the diagnosis period?

Knowing the patient’s perspective, hospital staffs and designers together came up with solutions on how they could work differently with new routines. They reorganized their workflow so that patients can start the diagnosis as soon as 48 hours after the discovery of a lump. As a result, the waiting time for breast cancer patient was reduced from 3 months to 7 days.

A large part of the patient experience redesign called for complete change within internal processes from the hospital’s end. The hospital stuffs had to change the way they work. For example, the creation of daily internal meetings of all specialists, implementing new ways of guiding patients during testing, etc. The new patient experience was only possible with the participation of the hospital.

Empower people.

While improving healthcare products and experiences is crucial, it’s also important to acknowledge that: in the end, we are designing for another human being just like us. It is so important to empathize, understand what people are going through, and provide healthcare solutions that empower them to feel human again.

Imagine living with diabetes, a life where you have to carry insulin with you at all times. Through out the day, you would have to figure out when, where, and how to do injections. While insulin injection is a task that comes with a lot of uncertainty, the experience could be much better with the help of design.

Through good product design, it is possible for people with diabetes have less confusion and anxiety when doing insulin insertion. Devices can be color coded to identify different kinds of insulins. Dose buttons can be spring loaded so insertion strength is consistent. At the end of the insertion, there could be an audible click sound to confirm the end of insertion so users know for sure that the process is over. The goal is to always put complete control and confidence in patient’s hand.

Healthcare is on it’s way to more changes.

There had been a lot of changes made in the healthcare industry, and there’s more to come. From treatment methods, hospital experiences to medical records and insurance reimbursement, there are many opportunities areas that are hungry for improvement.

Making innovation in the healthcare industry won’t be easy due to how big and complicated the system is. There’s a lot of stakeholders and countless regulations in the way. However, design and technology are a great catalyst for innovation. Wether we look at examples in AI applications, virtual reality or smart devices, new designed solutions are adding some inspiring light to traditional problems.

We are at a tipping point where our understanding about the world is radically changing. We believe that in a not too far future, design will lead our society to a place with better a healthcare environment that puts humans first.

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