By Karen Palmer
It was a tweet featuring student tweaks to the kind of personal protection equipment used by healthcare workers battling the Ebola virus that caused Associate Professor Kate Sellen’s phone to ring.
The manufacturing conglomerate 3M was on the line. They’d seen the Twitter post from a student in the Master of Design in Design for Health program about ideas for improving the full-body protective suits, which are made at 3M.
The manufacturer, impressed, wanted to learn more.
“This is an indication to me that not only are the students really talented, there's an appetite for answers to these very specific but marketplace-driven questions,” says Sellen, the the MDes program’s director.
Channelling design thinking into healthcare may be long overdue. But it means bringing a different way of thinking to a heavily bureaucratic system that’s got multiple stakeholders, myriad complexities and an ever-changing model of delivery.
“Healthcare is one big giant, wicked problem,” says Jules Goss, an OCAD U associate professor who worked for years as designer-in-residence at Baycrest Health Sciences, a Toronto hospital specializing in geriatric medicine.
“There are so many disrupters at play: there’s a massive demographic of highly demanding seniors who are just on the cusp of retiring now. They expect a lot and they demand a great deal. But we do not have the fiscal health to be able to just do the same things we’ve done before to provide them with healthcare they're likely to expect. We have to come up with new ways and new approaches,” he says.
“My position is that, if you can use design thinking and design process effectively, you can come up with templated means of bringing elements together for optimal impact within the resources you have.”
Sellen says meeting the demand for design in healthcare means graduates will need to understand the sector and how choices get made. Most healthcare decision-makers live and die by evidence, needing studies and numbers and statistics to support policy changes or new processes.
“If data have been generated using particular methodologies, then it counts as truth. If it’s not evidence-based, it doesn't exist. This is a problem for design, because we're not visible in the evidence base,” Sellen says.
“We train students to look for stuff that is more qualitative, that gives context but is also accepted as truth in the medical world, and then to build on that.”
Aspiring health designers might then gather information from design-based research, using observation, creative co-design workshops and in-depth interviews.
“By the end of the project, they can show their client or partner that they've understood the value of the evidence base and respected it,” Sellen says. “They’re also bringing this other lens and this different kind of qualitative data to the table, which has resulted in the combination of all these things into a new way of doing things.”
Last year, the Design for Health program’s first cohort of 12 students worked with the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute on re-designing a ward for severe dementia patients, focusing on giving patients a calming experience that feels more like home than hospital.
They also tackled the kits that carry naloxone, thinking about ways to improve the packaging, accessibility and delivery of the drug that can reverse an opioid overdose.
In a partnership with Saint Elizabeth Home Health Care, they developed interactive narrative exercises to explore issues that come up at end of life, such as whether to call for emergency help or to try to manage issues at home.
“That visit to the emergency department can be incredibly costly, not just from a healthcare point of view but from an emotional point of view,” Sellen says. “Those kinds of things we can tweak: the experience, communications, materials, products, even spaces that can do the job of relieving those situations where you end up with people lining [hospital] halls.”
“It can be used for a big outcome, like how do you design the care environment of the future, but it can also be used on a very pragmatic level, and personally here I think is where the biggest impact will happen,” Goss says.
“Healthcare is a very difficult environment to effectively make those changes happen,” he adds. “It’s called healthcare, but it’s all tiny islands of different activities in the same broad sea of what we define as healthcare. Design thinking is not the answer to all of the problems, but it’s a component to some of them.”
A former research writer for Healthy Debate and the author of Spellbound: Inside West Africa's Witch Camps, Karen Palmer’s clients include the Toronto Star, Sydney Morning Herald, South China Morning Post and Washington Times.