Design thinking: A human-centric approach to problem solving in healthcare
Design thinking is a process that’s gotten a lot of attention over the last few years, and it’s proving a useful tool in healthcare. On a recent episode of the Voices in Healthcare Finance podcast, Jess Roberts, who leads the Culture of Health by Design initiative at the University of Minnesota, shared some thoughts about opportunities for healthcare leaders to use design thinking.
Design thinking defined
“Design thinking, or human-centered design … is really about placing human experience at the center of the design process,” Roberts said. “It’s about grounding the work in the end user’s lived experiences as well as their hopes, values and fears.”
The design thinking process involves small steps that are meant to provide insight and lead to the next step, rather than to find a solution right away, he said. Prototyping is a common tactic.
“I think a lot of health systems are used to things like piloting, where prototyping is really about starting something small. It might be just testing something or trying something with two patients, rather than launching a full-on pilot for several months.”
The process is just as much about finding the problem as the solution, Roberts said.
“We tend to default to the same problems and get frustrated when we don’t come to a successful solution,” he said. “A lot of times that’s because we’re not framing the right problem or the right aspect of a particular challenge, and almost always, we’re failing to fully understand it from our end users’ perspectives.”
Putting humans at the center
Empathy is often discussed as a key element of design thinking, but Roberts likes to think of it more in terms of humility because that helps people remove their own biases from the equation.
“I hear all the time in leadership circles that, ‘Well, we’re all patients.’ And while that’s technically true, it probably isn’t very reflective of the broader audience you’re looking to design for or you’re in service to,” he said. “You obviously have a very different understanding of how the healthcare system works than the general public. So instead of projecting our own experiences or perspectives on an abstract individual or population, we really need to recognize that we can’t really know what we don’t know.”
It’s also important to ask the right questions of the right people, Roberts said. For example, if an organization is trying to find ways to increase cancer screenings, it’s important to talk not just with cancer survivors but also people whose lives have not been affected by cancer.
“We really want to be intentional about diversity when we’re talking about empathy and engaging a set of perspectives and values,” he said.
Results through insight
Roberts shared a story of working with an organization to improve its intake process. In one morning at a clinic, four patients were asked two questions:
- What brings you joy?
- What are you most fearful of?
One patient shared that her dogs brought her joy, but in meeting with Roberts’ team after the appointment with her clinician, she said that one of the dogs had recently died, and she was struggling. She requested that her clinician be brought back in to talk with her because talking about the dog reminded her that she wanted to discuss her depression medication.
“We didn’t design a whole system around that [insight], but it was an insight to really think about,” he said.