In recent years, we have witnessed an increasing number of healthcare professionals becoming innovative on the grounds of “design thinking”. To explore the application of this in the healthcare field, first an understanding of the concept must be achieved. Design thinking is a human-centred approach to innovation – originally developed in the business world to generate new products.

Translating design thinking to the hospital environment, the innovations to produce an efficient hospital would spring from the frontlines of healthcare (the workers in the hospital itself) – providing feedback to designers for product improvement. This is in contrast to the traditional role of administrations providing the input for hospital design.

Healthcare workers coming together to generate novel ideas

In a report published just last year, the authors studied ways of implementing design thinking within a healthcare system. Three principles behind the approach were identified:

• empathy for the user (a patient, doctor or other healthcare provider);
• the involvement of an interdisciplinary team; and,
• rapid prototyping of the idea.

It is vital to attain a comprehensive understanding of the problem – which the innovation targets to resolve – in order to produce a truly beneficial outcome.

Thomas Fisher, an author of the report and the director of the Minnesota Design Centre at the University of Minnesota said, “Design thinking is useful for when we need a paradigm shift. For instance, when something is fundamentally broken about a service. It allows for the creative, multidisciplinary thinking around solving the issue.”

Director of the Minnesota Design Centre, Thomas Fisher stresses on the importance of design thinking when a paradigm shift is needed – allowing for creative, multidisciplinary thinking around solving an issue
Director of the Minnesota Design Centre, Thomas Fisher stresses on the importance of design thinking when a paradigm shift is needed – allowing for creative, multidisciplinary thinking around solving an issue

Focusing on this approach, Dr Bon Ku directs the Jefferson Health Design Lab at the Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia – which allows medical students, nurses, doctors and other hospital staffs being given the freedom to design, manufacture and prototype their ideas. They can, subsequently, present their ideas back to the hospital. 

CareCube, a paediatric pain scoring system, is just one of their fruits of labour. Usually, a standard pain score (1 – 10) is used on patients – however, the healthcare personnel there considered the possibility of a toy-like object being more effective and appealing for children. Corresponding to the established pain scores, each of the six sides of the cube bears a facial expression, like a grimace or frown.

In practice, the paediatric patients can easily take the cube and point to a face to indicate their pain levels upon questioning. This enables nurses to quickly note patients’ pain management.

Ease of use, efficiency and improved user experience for clinicians and patients


Dr Ku and his team developed a course this year – pairing medical and architecture students. They will develop a digital mapping tool with GPS-like software on the basis of design thinking. This is to enhance the understanding of how patients, doctors and nurses move and interact in the emergency room – ultimately, to improve communication and decrease wait times.

Researchers at McGill University in Montreal also applied this concept by studying the distance between a sink to a C. difficile infected patient. They discovered that a sink closer to the patient led to a higher probability of healthcare workers washing their hands after interaction with that patient. Dr Yves Longtin, lead author of that study, said that majority of clinical care has been relocated to the part of the hospital where sinks are within close proximity – to improve hand washing rates.

Not only healthcare workers, patients can also contribute with innovative ideas. Dr Joyce Lee from the University of Michigan spearheads an interdisciplinary effort – called Health Design By Us. They supported a patient-designed mobile system for diabetes management when a patient’s father sourced for ways to easily monitor and document his child’s glucose readings. Termed Nightscout, it is attached to the patient’s glucose monitor and sends digital readings to the cloud. Subsequently, it is accessible via many devices – a phone, tablet or smartwatch – to immediately guide clinical decisions.

Another example of the spread of design thinking is reflected in the recent sprout of online communities. “Clinicians for Design” is a platform which connects international healthcare providers. Offering online discussions, workshops and digital resources – it aims to improve healthcare delivery and the hospital’s design.

“Nearly everything in healthcare has been designed —s patient gowns, medical devices, and hospital bills. We may not realise this because so many of these processes and products are so poorly designed,” summarised Dr Ku and his colleagues, about healthcare design thinking.

He continued, “Design is not about making the things look pretty or creating bright shiny objects. Design — particularly in healthcare — is about ease of use, efficiency, and an improved user experience for both clinician and patient.” MIMS

Read more:
The design evolution: How hospital architecture has changed since the 19th century
Healthcare technology: 3 wearable innovations doctors may soon be prescribing to patients
3 ways hospitals are becoming more baby-friendly