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

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The Crossroads of Healthcare and Design: A Pharmacy Student’s Experience in Design (and Emergency Medicine)

By Kevin Dang, PharmD Candidate 2017

When I first heard from my preceptor that my Emergency Medicine rotation would include a component of design, I was excited but also curious as to what that meant exactly. When I was initially introduced to design thinking as it pertains to healthcare, it didn’t click. What does design have to do with healthcare? As I soon learnt, design thinking is about allowing for creativity to establish the different ideas that can result either in a solution to an issue or a re-imagining of a system in which the issue is circumvented. Scientific thinking is about understanding constraints and prerequisites in which a solution must sit and then progressing to develop one. Much of healthcare utilizes a scientific approach to solutions, and while an efficient means, it does not give way to the creativity allowed with design thinking. By wielding design thinking as a tool of innovation, healthcare may find relief from the constraints that hold back progress. Though it may be resource intensive, it ultimately allows healthcare to focus more on the patient rather than on the disease.

Design thinking is the root of humanity’s successes - from the discovery of the wheel to bioengineering a virus to kill cancer. Tim Brown of IDEO,  defines it as “a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible”. Design elicits thoughts about the arts, fashion, and engineering; however, it is as pervasive throughout healthcare as it is in the formerly mentioned fields. Within the realm of design, often what is most important is not the finished product, but rather, how the product was developed; starting with empathizing for a burden, identifying the true problem, ideating  a number of possible solutions, narrowing the options down to an optimal choice, then testing and re-evaluating the ability of the innovation to solve the issue.

To further utilize the potential of design thinking, it is important to incorporate it in the foundations of healthcare education. As a student at Jefferson College of Pharmacy, the principles of design are not overtly taught within our curriculum. However, after understanding what design thinking is about and what its purpose is, a quick observation of pharmacy education shows how embedded the design process is within its framework. In the grand scheme of healthcare, there are interventions - whether pharmaceutical, surgical, cognitive, or architectural - that are solutions for different states of health that hinder an individual’s quality of life. Design is taught in the backdrop of the curriculum of pharmacy school - through understanding how health issues affects the individual, choosing the most appropriate treatment from the numerous options, and evaluating the intervention's effect. Its place in education should be more transparent so that students may understand healthcare as a process of empathetic ingenuity.

There was one night where I had a hard time getting to sleep, and what kept me up was child vehicular deaths. Imbued with knowledge about design thinking, I sought out to see how I could use it to arrive at a solution. I empathized with the parents of the children who died and tried looking through their eyes while thinking about what the root cause of these events may be. I ideated on a number of possible solutions from utilizing sensor devices, wearables, car alarms, media communications, educational programs, and even  legal penalties. I knew that it wasn’t only technology that could provide a solution, but many other avenues could harbor something worth using. What’s left is prototyping these different solutions and then testing them. Since my ED/Design rotation was only 6 weeks long, I didn’t have much time to dive into development in the JeffDESIGN Lab. However, armed with these new skills, I will certainly keep working on the problem.

Although my detour into design thinking wasn’t directly related to my Emergency Medicine pharmacy rotation, I’ve learnt something valuable and applicable that can be carried forward in my pharmacy career. Exposure to design thinking has opened my perspective and approach to another paradigm of thought - solution(s) based thinking, rather than problem based. For someone who is rather scatter-brained, I’ve understood why I fair much better with approaching a problem with solutions from different angles than allowing my decisions to be confined by predetermined criteria. In my world of healthcare, this abstract thinking allows me to find novel interventions by stepping out of structure of the ordinary and into the chaos of creativity, a place where honestly, I feel most at home.

Kevin Dang, PharmD Candidate 2017

Written by Kevin Dang, PharmD Candidate 2017