HEALTHCARE

Design Thinking in Healthcare

Bansi Mehta | 9 min read

The approach of Design Thinking is a method of problem-solving that focuses on human behavior and needs. The process employs empathy, voluminous idea generation, rapid prototyping, and continuous testing to tackle complex challenges. 

“Human-centered design is about meeting people where they are and really taking their needs and feedback into account. When you let people participate in the design process, you find that they often have ingenious ideas about what would really help them.”

—Melinda French Gates

Healthcare UX designers focus their efforts firstly on understanding how the system functions, and secondly, on the needs of the participants within that system (patients, providers, insurance companies, pharmacists, etc.) before coming up with solutions. 

They rely on their thorough understanding of all the stakeholders to map the rest of the process. And because UX design thinking is iterative, feedback is sought early and often, especially from users on both sides.

Health design thinking can encompass the entire spectrum of the experience — beginning from when a patient gets to the hospital/clinic to what happens when he goes back home and post-visit care. 

There is an increased need to focus more on understanding the patient experience at a deeper level to solve whatever problems both sides encounter, along with enhancing the overall experience and lowering its costs.

How does Design Thinking in Healthcare work?

Design thinking makes you listen, really listen.

Design process - design thinking in healthcare

The Research phase of the design process involves the study of the actual user demographic to gain meaningful insights into their behavior. User research techniques include contextual inquiries, user interviews, surveys and questionnaires, observational studies, etc., which do the job of mapping the user journey from the point of origin to the destination – and thereby covering their pain points at various stages. 

The synthesis part of the process is where the collected data is analyzed and made sense of. Conducted in succession, these methods manage to give a voice to the patients, caregivers, as well as stakeholders, letting all three sides weigh their opinions regarding the entire system and be heard.

Thus, in the further stages of design when the actual solution building happens based on user experience, it ends up being high on utility, practicality, and financial feasibility, solely because it is not sourced through thin air and is instead focused on solving real-world user problems in real-time.

Case in point –

A study investigating the hypothesis that improving access to healthcare for the transportation-disadvantaged population revealed that 3.6 million people miss or delay/reschedule their medical appointments due to issues related to unreliable transportation. This accounts for billions of dollars in annual costs for healthcare providers across the nation. These missed or last-minute reschedules end up creating several operational challenges as well, like schedule disruptions of care providers to interference with patient care and treatment. 

The specific reasons behind these no-show cases hold the key to improving the overall patient experience and saving those billions that go down the drain. In such cases, User Experience (UX) research and synthesis deep dives into observing and assimilating user behavior — from what happens before people get to the hospital to what happens after they leave — reveals telling insights that usually go unnoticed. 

Ideation – a phase of design thinking (healthcare) which is an iterative process of finding creative solutions – is what helps keep up with this frenetic pace of progress.

As the healthcare sector evolves, so do its problems. Improved healthcare, for instance, is a huge factor in increased longevity, which throws up the complex challenges of handling a growing population of the elderly. Another instance is centered around the increased awareness of mental health – considering that isolation and loneliness can be as debilitating to human life as cancer or diabetes. These are the challenges confronting the healthcare ecosystem at the moment, the kind of questions that require a deeper understanding of user behavior and curating unique solutions directed at specific as against generic problems.

Also read: Design Standards to save lives – UX in Healthcare

The ideation techniques in the design process involve brainstorming wherein designers, based on the research data, come up with feasible and creative solutions to solve problems in an efficient, budget-friendly manner. These ideas are turned into simple prototypes, which may be used in user testing to ensure that the solution is headed in the right direction. Based on the feedback gained in the user testing phase, the prototypes are further refined before being moved to design.

Design Thinking for Healthcare at Koru

A whopping 62% of practitioners in the United States were unable to access telehealth through their Electronic Health Records (EHR) systems during the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic managed to bring into focus some deep-rooted problems within the healthcare system. The crisis saw them turn to nascent tools of telehealth or makeshift options such as Facetime or Skype.

Since more than 95% of hospitals in the United States make use of a certified EHR platform, the most plausible solution would be to integrate the EHR system with a telehealth platform. Our goals for this project were to ensure improved remote care for patients, and reduced mortality rates for the chronically ill, while maintaining the highest standards of security and privacy. 

As part of our research, we consulted senior subject matter experts and users since a large segment of the providers was in the age bracket of 50-60. The solution had to cater to their specific accessibility-based needs and resolve challenges related to provider burnout.

Our telehealth-integrated EHR solution became an umbrella tool for providers. It enabled them to view clinical documents, patient history, video interactions, and audio files on the patient’s profile page with minimal clicks. Most significantly, the addition of AI-powered Natural Language Processing (NLP) simplified accents and offered translations in real-time which helped negate the cognitive burden of post-call documentation. 

Easy access to patient records led to improved diagnosis and clinical decisions. It helped reduce the long hours spent on documentation, as physicians could now refer to notes and transcripts and not just rely on their ability to recall, thus making the data more authentic and reducing the potential for error.

This telehealth-integrated EHR solution is being used for 1.5 million minutes per day across hospitals and healthcare practitioners. It was among the first few integrated solutions to have reduced patient demands on facilities and yet help deliver top-grade care through 80,000 facilities covering 130,000+ physicians, and 850,000+ healthcare professionals in the US.

Our project bagged the prestigious iF Design Award in the User Interface category and the A’ Design Award in the User Interaction category in 2021. 

Design Thinking is not just for designers

Applying the principles of design thinking does not necessarily require a designer’s qualification. Amitha Kalaichandran wrote in this New York Times article how a nurse working in the ED unit of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, suggested a simple yet innovative idea that the team leader in trauma cases wear a bright, easy-to-spot orange vest. This was to deal with a situation “in which a huddle of highly stressed emergency room staff members spoke over one another and there were no clear roles.” 

For trauma teams that constantly deal with high-strung situations requiring lightning-fast decision-making, this tiny change “has helped clarify who’s in charge and strengthened communication among members.”

Thus, the key aspects of implementing design thinking do not involve rocket science, but are only centered upon –

  • Empathy for the user, likely to be a patient or care provider
  • Interdisciplinary collaborations
  • Prompt prototyping of the innovation

Employing design thinking (UX)  methodologies and techniques enable healthcare providers to revise their perspectives – they begin to see their patients as human first, and patients on a secondary level. 

Alzheimer’s disease is currently the 6th leading cause of death in the U.S. and kills more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. With 5.8 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease, this number is projected to rise to nearly 14 million by 2050. Early diagnosis is key to fighting this disease, however, only 50% of those living with it are diagnosed. The Alzheimer’s Association leveraged design thinking to uncover ways for speedy diagnosis. 

Leading voices in the healthcare system are now in favor of taking a “consumer-centric” approach, focusing their digital investments on improving patient experiences and newer forms of care delivery, especially since the onset of the pandemic.

Design Thinking in Pharmaceutical Industry

Patients often discover that remembering their medication schedules can be a bigger problem than the disease itself. From fetching medication from the pharmacy to ensuring its expiration dates haven’t passed by, to remembering which one is to be consumed with food, the complete process can be overwhelming for patients and caregivers.

PillPack, an online pharmacy portal applied the principles of design thinking in healthcare to build a prescription home-delivery system that takes the pain out of the whole process. 

“PillPack has revealed the massive potential of combining design thinking and the drug market… This simple innovation makes life easier for seniors who can be a bit forgetful and have difficulty with bottles,” described Wired magazine in a feature article showcasing their UX-first approach.

Future Prospects of Health Design Thinking 

Design thinking is key to enabling the healthcare sector to become proactive instead of reactive. Healthcare is no longer relegated to the environs of a hospital or clinic. Monitoring human health is now a 24/7 activity with apps and wearables being an integral aspect of life as we know it. 

Areas posing design challenges in healthcare

1. Hygiene and cleanliness

2. Lack of empathy while dealing with patients

3. Monitoring stocks

4. Technology integration

5. Patient transportation

6. Diagnostics

7. Treatment processes

8. Communication issues between healthcare providers and patients

9. Environmental impact and carbon footprint

10. Data security threats

It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”
– Batman

YouTube video

Design thinking is just like Batman – it’s always able to look for creative solutions to problems. It organizes scattered ideas and brings about subtle differences which make an impact. The purpose of design thinking is to delight users and to do so, the process employs methods that mix science and art with creativity and innovation. It requires decision-makers to empathize with patients, think creatively, ideate, and continually test solutions to these problems.

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The purpose of design thinking is to delight users and to do so, the process employs methods that mix science and art with creativity and innovation.

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More Resources:

AI in Surgery: Revolutionizing Healthcare

Healthcare Industry Trends that Made an Impact in 2019 and Beyond

4 Factors That Determine the Usability of Your Healthcare App


About Author:

With an experience of over a decade in User Experience, Bansi Mehta is the Founder & CEO of Koru UX Design. Collectively, her team provides exceptional UX for enterprise applications and complex systems, working with clients ranging from healthcare giants to boutique investment banks.


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