Design: The secret sauce

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By Kate Sellen

Well recognized are the challenges to our healthcare system. Not so well recognized is the role of design in finding solutions.

Design sits at the intersection of expertise informed by the evidence base, clinician expertise, and the lived experience of patients, family and caregivers. Design uses techniques to uncover unmet needs, workarounds and adaptations that can be refined and scaled. Design also uses techniques to bring stakeholders’ perspectives as well as particular product and clinical requirements together.

Taking a design approach from project inception to adoption while involving all stakeholders in the process has been successful both in Canada and elsewhere.  The experience of the UK National Health Service, for instance, has shown a design approach to developing a best practice care pathway for breast surgery can reduce the length of stay from four days to one day/one night. The pathway has saved the NHS an estimated $15 million (10 million GBP) to date.

Design meets health system challenges wherever there is an element of a designed experience, environment, service, product, communication or tool. These include the need to leverage technology to connect health information and enable digital delivery across organizations and individuals, through design of interfaces and interactive experiences that fit the needs of clinicians as well as support patient experience. It includes the need to provide tools for clinicians to support what happens at discharge, which can include design of communications, visual tools, checklists, and services.  In addition, the management of chronic diseases requires design of supportive tools and devices, and solutions that address access and inclusiveness for an increasingly diverse population. This is where design using the latest techniques for accessibility can include everything from architecture and interior design to graphics and illustration.

Canada has a growing number of design success stories to share, including among others:

  • Developing a mobile system of breast screening in Manitoba using interior design, product design and service design methods, by CancerCare Manitoba.
  • Designing materials to support cardiovascular event recovery – a collaboration between Toronto’s Pivot Design and the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Canada.
  • Using design methods and industrial design to develop a personal home-based cervical smear test kit and service by Eve Medical that replaces physician office visits.
  • Collaborating to create a first aid kit for overdose response – a combination of design expertise from OCAD University, community partner knowledge and expertise at St Michael’s Hospital.

The design process can be validated through engagement with stakeholders, field testing and evidence-based techniques to ensure the final design has undergone multiple iterations and refinement. Designing with end users, including patients, service delivery organizations and frontline healthcare providers, helps ensure that solutions are designed for feasible implementation and effective practice. In this way, design methods and expertise are the secret sauce – combining key ingredients of stakeholder focus, inclusive processes, evidence, and implementation.

OCAD U is the largest art and design university in Canada with focused design engagement in the health sector. Through our recently launched Design for Health Master’s degree program, students develop the design competencies required to tackle the complex issues faced by the Canadian healthcare system and the communication skills needed to work on multidisciplinary teams.

Design provides a different way to view a problem, propose and explore alternatives, and to prototype solutions. Meeting the needs of a changing and emerging societal, structural and technological context of health requires design and design expertise.

Design methods and approaches are poised to make a positive impact on challenges and opportunities in the health sector.

[This article is abstracted from a larger manuscript.]

Kate Sellen, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Design at OCAD U. She leads the Healthcare and Resilient Experience Research Group and is Director of the Design for Health Master’s Program. Her PhD is in Human Factors in Industrial Engineering (University of Toronto).