Educating the next generation to solve complex health problems through design thinking


What can design thinking do for healthcare?

The US healthcare system is broken. This is a phrase that has been used for so long that it practically defines the word cliche. When I made the decision to pursue a career in healthcare, I did so with the grandiose idea that I would somehow be able to change at least a small part of the broken system for the better. Since that time, there have been some amazing achievements in the delivery of healthcare on a grand scale, but from the view on the front lines, the main thing that has changed is my optimism that the status quo will ever be broken. Then I discovered design, it changed the way I think, and my optimism returned.

I was first introduced to design thinking a year ago when a colleague of mine who had just started a design program at the med school asked me to to be a subject matter expert for a summer project. For their summer capstone, the medicine design students were working on developing medication adherence solutions and I helped provide some context. During that project we identified another project relating to improving medication reconciliation in the emergency department and tackled that as well. Both of these problems the students aimed to solve were so complex that few clinicians would ever voluntarily attempt to solve them. But here they were, a bunch of first year med students with their newly assimilated “design thinking” strategies, trying to solve these intractable issues in healthcare.


Initially I was dubious about how much we could really solve in a summer and even more so with the supposed “magic” of the whole design thinking thing. At first glance, the idea of design thinking seemed to be no more than just a common-sense way of solving problems and I didn’t really get why it had a special name. But I went along with it, giving my two cents here-and-there, and using my 10+ years of experience to guide the students through the problem. I settled in for the long haul but then as soon as we had started, the students had a solution. It was rough and sort of bad, but they tested it, and it failed, and they got back to the drawing board. Something about this process was new and I wasn’t sure why, until it hit me. I thought about how I usually try to solve problems when caring for patients. I pour over the patient’s history, consult all of the pertinent literature, discuss the problem with the patient and care team, compare all of the options, try to consider every possible angle and THEN make a decision, and it better be the right one, the first time. The idea of quickly coming up with a solution and just trying it, was something entirely foreign within this standard framework of thinking.

Since that first project, I’ve learned much about design concepts and understand the many benefits of applying them in healthcare. When I try to explain these concepts to my uninitiated colleagues I usually start with one simple concept, clinicians are afraid to fail. From the day we start our training, we are told that failure is something that we are simply not allowed to do because failure can mean a life. This is how we think, this is how we approach problems, and this may be one of the reasons why the healthcare system is in the shape it is today. There is much more to being a part of our complex healthcare system than just caring for patients, and few clinicians actually get training in the many other roles outside of patient care.

When I speak to the older generation of pharmacists, they tell me that when they went to college, there was a class on window dressing. In the early days of the profession, most pharmacists worked in independent pharmacies and they had to make the front windows look appealing to customers. Window dressing class went away as the profession moved to a more clinical role but it was never replaced with consumer experience class, and every day clinicians are expected to plan for and provide an excellent consumer experience when caring for their patients.

This is why I believe in the importance of design in healthcare. I'm not saying that every clinician should also be a designer (although we should have more designers in medicine), but I do believe that a familiarity with design could go a long way to help clinicians learn a new way of thinking when trying to solve these seemingly intractable problems that surround healthcare. Thanks to design, I have a new found optimism for the future of healthcare, and armed with this new way of thinking, I feel like no problem is too big to solve.

This is my inaugural post for my blog, Design Enlightened Clinician, where I will be exploring my journey through design and healthcare. Thanks for reading and follow for more!

Re-designing Medical Education