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Stanford University School of Medicine

Learning how to use design thinking to improve the patient experience

EDPatientDesignAsk anyone who has experienced the health-care system if something about it could be improved, and there will be no shortage of predictable answers about access, cost and communication. Those in the industry have heard these complaints and know they need to do better -- and bit by bit, health-care administrators have recognized that their industry could learn from others.

More than a decade ago, hospitals began to adapt the automobile industry’s lean management principles to improve health care’s productivity and resource use. Lean analysis in health care is particularly good at discovering the easy-fix -- small details like the relocation of a fax machine that scale up to big solutions like the shortening of patient checkout time. (Think about the time it takes a receptionist to get up, go the machine and come back. Multiply. Move the machine so all the receptionist need do is reach and there is one less delay. Or better yet, make everything digital. It all adds up.)

The latest way into health-care change is empathy-based design thinking. Some of health care’s heavyweights have already invested it: The Mayo Clinic, for example, opened an innovation center in 2008, and Massachusetts General Hospital has designated certain nursing units as testing grounds for change. Stanford Health Care has also joined the group, applying design thinking to the new Stanford hospital, scheduled to open in 2018. It's also taking advantage of the right-across-the-street location of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, known informally as the

The two joined to offer a recent two-day class, which I observed for this story, to show how design thinking could be applied to improving emergency care at Stanford. The participants included Stanford undergrads headed for medicine and others whose contributions to health care may be felt in other ways. What design thinking taught them, several participants said, is that understanding patients begins by listening to them.

Stanford Health Care’s patients “have told us they want us to know them and to understand them,” said Alpa Vyas, vice president for patient experience. “We want to know what their unmet needs are. Applying design thinking to health care is an invaluable way for us to do that.”

On the first day of class, the students interviewed patients and families about their experiences with medical care. Later that day, they took part in the exercise. The simulation “added the value of walking in a patient’s shoes, an emotional value that complemented the interviews,” said Emilie Wagner, a design strategist who co-taught the class with Marney Boughan, another design strategist who trained with co-founder David Kelley, the Donald W. Whittier Professor in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford.

“Suddenly, our students could empathize,” she said. “It’s a tool that encourages students to step out of designing for themselves and trust the people they’re designing for.”

Previously: Abraham Verghese: It's a great time for physician leaders to embrace design thinkingAt Medicine X, designers offer their take on why patient-centered design is top priority and Improving patient satisfaction and turn-around time in an emergency department
Photo of class participants by Norbert von der Groeben

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