Designing from the bottom up: Guiding healthcare stakeholders through ideation

healthcare co-design

At a recent event, Michelle Domey, mother of a child with special health care needs, found herself sharing her experience with a design expert, describing recent telehealth appointments at Boston Children’s Hospital. “My son feels like he’s having a private appointment, even though I’m sitting next to him, and his doctor is miles away,” she reflected. “Who thought that was possible through a tablet or a computer?”

As adult patients nodded in agreement, the group began to think about how to leverage Michelle’s experience to design support systems for kids with special health care needs. A software engineer expanded Michelle’s comment into a vision of the classroom of the future — a learning environment fully equipped with remote learning solutions for children with special health care needs, and environmental sensors for children with severe food allergies and health risks. The Olin College Co-Design for Better Health Innovation Lab was well underway.

Co-designing a better healthcare experience

The event, produced by Olin College in collaboration with athenahealth, Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital and the Innovation & Digital Health Accelerator (IDHA) at Boston Children’s, brought together a diverse range of healthcare stakeholders, including patients, patient advocates, clinicians, user design and experience experts, engineers and healthcare administrators.

After some initial presentations and exercises aimed at understanding people and their healthcare experiences, attendees divided into small groups, each focusing on a different healthcare issue. The variety of participants — including members of our IDHA team — promoted a culture of co-design, drawing on everyone’s distinct experiences and perspectives.

The groups began by simply mapping out the “experience journey” of the patient, caregiver or clinician who embodied their chosen healthcare problem. Next, group members listed a variety of questions: “How might we support….” “How might we integrate…” “How might we alter…”? Then, they brainstormed answers to all the questions, made drawings and finally built 3-D representations of their ideas.

healthcare co-design
Mapping a physician’s “experience journey”

Katie Segien, start-up analyst at IDHA, spent her afternoon thinking about children with chronic conditions and innovations to help them thrive and reach their potential. She was joined by a patient advocate, a cardiologist from Boston Children’s Hospital and a designer from athenahealth. “Everyone had very valuable perspectives and brought really intriguing ideas to the table,” she says.

Katie brought expertise around commercializing cutting-edge innovative medical devices. The designer brought a unique perspective to the group’s overall thought process. The cardiologist works with her patients to create an understanding of what they are capable of achieving, encouraging them to accomplish their goals. Her perspective served as a foundation for the group’s conversations. For Katie, a major takeaway was that she wasn’t trying to solve major medical problems, but instead co-design innovations around medical conditions that patients must manage on a daily basis. “We came up with an app that really helped patients understand their condition and how they could flourish,” she says.

Asking questions… not jumping to solutions

Leila Amerling, program manager at IDHA, joined a group focused on creating a healing space, contributing her experience in the operational management of cutting-edge healthcare programs. Her group also included a designer and a project manager who, like her, had worked on patient-facing projects and offered creative skill sets. “That gave us the ability to collaborate from different perspectives in healthcare, creatively.”

healthcare co-design
Building a physical model of an innovation, even a low-fidelity model, helps stimulate the ideation process.

healthcare co-design

The co-design process went in directions she hadn’t anticipated. “I work in a world where we strive to think of solutions as soon as we find a problem,” she says. However, the designer and project coordinator in Leila’s group didn’t jump to consider solutions. Instead, they helped her to ask questions. The group’s questions inspired them to reflect on their own experiences in specific situations and the quality of the experience. Another question was the basis of Leila’s major takeaway from the event: “If you had a magic wand, what would you do to solve this problem?”

“Don’t be afraid to go way beyond the box, because doing so may guide you to the right solution,” she says. She is now committed to being a more vocal advocate for patients in her work at Boston Children’s Hospital. ”I will be there to remind our team that we’re not just here to listen to clinicians and solve their problems, but we should be here for the patients, too.”

Historically, co-design has not been widely adopted by healthcare professionals, but the power of diverse perspectives enables unique, competitive and impactful solutions to emerge. When you design from the bottom up, with the right people at the table, you may go in unexpected, more meaningful directions. If the exchanges at this event are any indication of the future, co-design is well on its way toward implementation across the healthcare ecosystem — and toward creating leading pediatric healthcare innovations.

Looking for inspiration? Sign up to attend IDHA’s Innovator’s Showcase (April 12, 2017).