Why Design Thinking Is Critical to Improving Patient Experience in Healthcare


Sutherland Editorial

More than price or product, brands use increasingly their customer experience offerings to differentiate themselves from the competition. But how do they know they’re providing the best customer experience now and will continue to in the future?

The answer -- apply design thinking to engineer businesses to work smarter and use it as the methodology to underpin customer-experience design. Design thinking is important now more than ever, as studies show companies that invest in customer experience generate up to five times faster revenue growth compared with companies that don’t.

Our client Lawrence General Hospital (LGH), about 30 miles from Boston, needed to rethink its patient experience to impact medical and financial outcomes. But applying design thinking to health plans and healthcare providers is challenging in the United States because the industry’s complex regulatory framework means stakeholders are sanctioned more for underregulating than for overregulating. They tend to be cautious when design and regulation meet. Another challenge for healthcare-related design is its multi-agency structure, and it’s tough to create a service that works for an entire population.

At the heart of design thinking is empathy -- In this case, empathy at a specific point in a transaction. From there, how do you complete business transactions such as registration or medical coding? And how can you make things easier and more painless for the patient and staff members? Design thinking considers the perspective of human needs to answer those questions.

Our own mapping process has uncovered valuable insights on the healthcare experiences customers want:

  • A more integrated customer experience that seamlessly ties together communication, programs, education and guidance from across multiple healthcare organizations.
  • Optimized and automated tools to assist with enrollment, information gathering, account management, billing, renewals and self-diagnosis.
  • Added value services presented in a personalized dashboard for easier pre-registration, menu planning and scheduling.

Given their challenges, hospitals and healthcare companies must prioritize prototyping and testing before implementing these sorts of changes. And that’s where Sutherland’s stepped in with a workshop in March 2017 that aimed to discover which parts of LGH’s patient experience worked well and then “see what others [in the hospital] do and let them know more about what we do to better coordinate and help the patients,” according to Christina Wolf, clinical manager of population health for the hospital, in an HfS report about the workshop.

Along with Wolf, the workshop partnered Sutherland Labs Director of Design Research Gemma Wilde and Manager of Design Strategy Vanessa Sevilhano with LGH social workers, case managers, population health clinical leaders, outpatient rehabilitation employees, radiology staff, lab workers, patient financial services employees and clinicians. Together onsite at the hospital, they created in the workshop “personas” of typical patients and followed their hospital journeys in all phases, including their pain points, HfS noted.

“But as we built the persona for a person who comes into the hospital on an ambulance, into the ER, and eventually moves to an in-patient stay, we felt more and more how intense it must be for the patient,” Wolf said. “The number of touch-points gets exponentially bigger as they go through their experience, their journey. And we are not always thinking about it that way. It’s our day job, and we are used to it. But this person is sick and vulnerable, and here we are descending with advice, interventions, meds, education… It was really good to have the front-line providers and staff from different departments involved in this activity so we can support the patient and each other better during busy times on the floor.”

The workshop also helped Sutherland understand the LGH’s culture, patients and the mutual and exclusive challenges these stakeholders face. Lawrence General Hospital Senior Vice President of Medical Affairs and Population Health Dr. Pracha Eamranond saw it firsthand in the workshop.

“Design thinking and journey mapping is helping us conceptualize for all the roles in the hospital what the patient is experiencing and how to intervene and improve care,” Eamranond said. “As an example, in the workshop, we separated into four groups, all with representatives from different units in the hospital, and we came up with similar types of patients. It made us realize that while we work in different areas, we share a common bond – the patient, often a Latino Spanish-speaking community member.”

At the hospital’s next operations meeting following the workshop, the team focuses on the patient profile and how to best serve them from different perspectives, jobs, and departments.

“When we took a look at the first patient access point, for example, we realized that we were not identifying the Spanish-speaking patients as such because sometimes they can’t or won’t talk to us when we ask them if they speak English,” Eamranond added. “Now, we ask them what language they prefer to speak at home – it raises their comfort level for conversing with us, and for following up in care plans and performance surveys. When people are at the most vulnerable moment in their lives, we want them to feel as comfortable as possible under our care.”

The workshop also showed LGH’s success is Sutherland’s success. At the same time, LGH got a better insight into Sutherland’s capabilities and resources while working together onsite. And Wolf said the workshop helped break down some of LGH’s silos.

But change is never easy.

“I still feel that we struggle with making change happen fast,” Eamranond said. “But journey mapping helps us frame and segment experience – not just for our patients but also with our colleagues and partners like Sutherland, which provides patient access and financial management support for our hospital. It gives us a framework and helps us break down a problem and arrive at a solution more quickly. We have all improved in terms of how we communicate; design thinking is an important aspect of that. It changes the focus from ‘dealing with each other’ to working together because we know we have the same vision and a shared pathway. This is critical because no matter where we are in the hospital, our work touches the patients and their experiences in some way.”

Next, the successful design-thinking partnership between Sutherland and LGH will soon enter a new phase.