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Overcoming Healthcare’s Challenges in Design Thinking

In a recent posting we discussed “journey mapping” as a tool for improving customer experiences in the healthcare sector. This week, we share thoughts on “design thinking,” an approach that is described as “a human-centered way of innovation that draws from the designer toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success,” according to design thinking guru Tim Brown, Chief Executive Officer, IDEO.

Put simply, design thinking tackles problems with the objective of keeping peoples’ needs always in mind while working towards solutions that succeed from a business perspective as well. It does so by a process of divergent thinking – ideating, prototyping, testing – that ultimately converges on the most viable solution.

When it comes to the United States’ healthcare sector, however, applying design thinking to working with health plans and health providers is particularly challenging. Here’s why:

Firstly, the healthcare sector’s complex regulatory framework means stakeholders are sanctioned more for under-regulating than for over-regulating, so they tend to be cautious when design and regulation come face-to-face. One approach, however, is to brainstorm design challenges as if the rules simply don’t exist, and then to overlay them to see where they create pain points, adjusting the design as needed.

A second challenge when applying design thinking in healthcare is designing a service that works for an entire population. Most products and services are aimed at specific demographics. With healthcare, however, a true design solution must cater to people of varying ages, accessibility needs, income levels, language abilities, as well as housing and employment status.

One more major challenge for healthcare-related design is its multi-agency structure. A care plan for someone can involve several different providers, from a hospital to a physical therapist, all of whom need to be brought onboard during the design thinking process. Add in the growing importance of home care, the accompanying family & friends support network, and the ability to apply this concept at scale is apparent.

To combat the variables of design thinking in healthcare in the real world, it is critical that hospitals and healthcare companies prioritize prototyping and testing before implementing change. Focus groups enable concepts to be tested with a variety of patient demographics and, importantly, with service providers, sometimes overlooked in an increasingly patient-centric industry.

Real change requires stakeholders to work together, often necessitating a shift in culture and the willingness to reject “custom and practice.” For those willing to embrace change, design thinking offers a way to reconcile the needs of both patients and service providers.