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Stanford University School of Medicine

Using design thinking to cope with chronic illness

Design thinking may be able to help us disentangle one of the most perplexing complications in the prevention, management, and treatment of chronic disease: human behavior. At this weekend's Stanford Medicine X, a workshop called "Design Thinking for Patients with Chronic Illness" introduced participants to design thinking as a methodology to motivate healthy behaviors.

Dennis Boyle, a founding member of IDEO and a leader of the firm's health and wellness practice, and Sarah Mummah, PhD, a behavioral scientist and senior designer at IDEO, teach the Design for Healthy Behavior class at Stanford's d.School and led the workshop.

They briefly introduced stages of design thinking -- empathize, ideate, and prototype -- and illustrated the deep insights gained from the experience with several stories.

At the d.School, student pairs collaborate on designing for a real patient with a chronic condition, and Mummah launched the session with a video about a student project for a woman with depression.

The students had created a personal approach that targeted the patient's unique cognitive processes and obstacles to manage her depression. To help the patient, the students asked her to send a text message every night with three good things that happened that day. The patient's reflection was that "three good things had been more effective than years of therapy."

How did they arrive at this seemingly simple yet effective task? With design thinking, you begin problem solving with a focus on building empathy, such as interviewing the patient (with an emphasis on listening). The outcome of such an approach is a more personalized solution for the patient. Interviewing the patient often invalidates assumptions and reveals dimensions of a problem you didn't or couldn't anticipate because you -- the designer -- are not the patient.

For the workshop, we broke out into small groups with a patient to interview. As we practiced our interviewing skills in the workshop, I heard numerous variations of the phrase, "Wow, I didn't think of that."

The second stage is ideation, brainstorming on ideas. This is when we got out the sticky notes and Sharpies®, quintessential design thinking supplies. And this is when problem solving becomes more animated, collaborative, and fun. At one point, I heard Boyle say, "You're on the right track. You're laughing."
IDEO prescribes thinking of a wild idea, and then a wilder idea.

My group interviewed a woman self-described as a "quad" (quadriplegic). We brainstormed about ways to solve her problem with lack of privacy when talking to friends (since her caregiver was needed to answer the phone or Skype).

We started with the abstract, gradually building on each other's ideas, then narrowing down the choices to unite stakeholders around a vision -- easier to do when everyone, including the patient, has a voice in the design process.

The idea we presented during the workshop involved a space in virtual reality where she could speak in private anywhere in the world. The patient closed her eyes and smiled as she talked about talking on her virtual island.

The active part of the workshop concluded with the brainstorming that, in the real world, helps ensure you design informed prototypes to test and refine before building the final product.

Like all of the Medicine X sessions I've attended, our closing discussion was lively and inspirational. Reflected in the conversation was the value of different perspectives throughout the design process.

And the participants benefited from this key takeaway: When you design based on assumptions, assume your design will have problems.

Previously: It's back! Stanford Medicine X returns to campusDesign thinking is key to preparing doctors and improving health care, Medicine X speakers say and Learning how to use design thinking to improve the patient experience
Photo courtesy of Stanford Medicine X

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