The last place anyone expects to find a designer is in a hospital, clinic or operating room, but those are exactly the spaces where I embed myself. My first step toward this world occurred when I made fourteen paintings of microorganisms that explored the relationship between human development and disease.
I was a sophomore at the Rhode Island School of Design majoring in illustration, but even at art school, making paintings about disease was considered weird. Each painting featured a different microorganism that had changed the course of human development: bubonic plague, tuberculosis and smallpox to name a few of my favorites.
It wasn't until after the paint had dried and my class had given me feedback that I realized that something was missing. Staring at the paintings hanging on the wall, I realized that however strongly I felt about the paintings, however much research and thought had gone into them, these paintings weren't going to change anyone's relationship with disease. All they did was describe health and science that already existed. As a designer, I knew that I could do more.
That realization took place four years ago and marked the point when I stopped being satisfied with the traditional realms where most people think art and design exist: places like publishing houses, advertising firms, museums and galleries. Now, I'm an “experience designer,” a statement that is usually met with blank stares when I introduce myself at cocktail parties.
I combine research, design methodologies and clinical collaboration to re-imagine the way that people interact with health care. This can be anything from creating visual tools that improve conversations between patients and clinicians to designing digital experiences that allow patients to complete physical therapy examinations without leaving their homes.
Nothing is more important in health care than creating efficient, seamless, and (dare I say it?) enjoyable interactions between humans and systems. The world of health care is still 90 percent human. Nurses, doctors, medical staff and patients are just a few of the people that make up this huge, breathing system. These users need systems that can be navigated smoothly even as they make mistakes, allow emotions to affect their decisions, and act in ways that are against their best interests (cigarette, anyone?). Health care needs to work for real people, not robots. Designers understand the differences between the two and can craft experiences that function with humans, not in spite of them.
This understanding is important when designing tools for clinicians, but it is equally important when designing for patients. What good is performing a gastric bypass surgery on a person who is going to go home to a house stocked with chips and a family that doesn't know how to support healthy eating choices?
Instead of simply treating the outcomes of bad habits, design allows us to create interactions that systematically motivate people to make sustainable changes in their own lives. We can design interventions that target not only the physical body, but also the mind, social situation, environment and internal motivation that drive behavior change. Design lets us understand how health care fits into a patient's whole life, instead of understanding simply how that life fits into our health care system.
The very walls of clinics and hospitals are beginning to break down. The vision of health as a specialized activity overseen by an expert authority no longer exists. Patients interact daily with health and wellness tools in their homes as well as in the supervised environment of the clinic. Fitbits, telemedicine, alarm clocks that sync with sleep patterns, scales that communicate with phones, and apps that track medication dosage have become part of our daily lives. Designers bring to the table a deep knowledge of usability and the ability to conduct research into usability that makes these products easy and enjoyable to use.
These emerging problems in health care require us to overcome the traditional barriers between disciplines. When our entire system is disconnected and non-patient-centric we can no longer rely on individual experts to fix it. Designers are bridges between the different types of people with a stake in our health care system: patients, clinicians, engineers and business people. Design is interdisciplinary by nature, and designers seek to understand and incorporate these varying viewpoints, conducting multiple stakeholder interviews throughout the entire design process. This interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration is the secret ingredient necessary for innovation.
Designers have been quietly innovating in health care for years, but recently their voices have been growing louder. A few, like Aidan Petrie, co-founder of Ximedica, focus on clinician needs by designing medical devices like the robotic SPORT surgical system that decrease clinician cognitive workload and increase patient safety during complex surgical procedures. Others, like Kim Goodman, VP of user experience at PatientsLikeMe, answer patient needs by creating platforms that allow people with life-altering diseases to learn from each other while also generating data that informs research into cures.
Nick Jehlen, partner and creative director at The Action Mill, designs for caregivers by creating games that spark and facilitate difficult family conversations around end-of-life care. Christian Richard at Philips is working on a real challenge: publicly accessible defibrillators that could be used by anyone during in an emergency cardiac situation. And Krissa Ryan, during her time as a service designer at the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation, reduced hospitalizations in specific dialysis units by 40 percent by aligning clinical and patient goals through interview-based personas.
At Mad*Pow, I'm part of the behavior change team where I work with renowned designer Dustin DiTommaso to blend behavioral science, game design and narrative storytelling into a new kind of health care experience. We create empathetic experiences that help patients find the motivation to make positive behavior changes. Recently, we designed a digital tool that increases the autonomy and competence of patients with chronic heart disease by guiding them through a series of digital interactions. These interactions first educate patients about their condition, then connect them with resources to help them manage it, and finally encourage them to mentor newly diagnosed peers. Though Dustin and I come from very different backgrounds, we are drawn to health care for the same reason: we want to use design to improve people's lives.
All of us, at one point or another, are going to be patients. I know that when I end up in a hospital bed, I'll want a physician who understands that I will make better decisions when I'm dressed in my street clothes than when I'm half naked in a hospital gown. And I'll want a care team that knows that the food in my refrigerator deserves as much attention as the prescriptions in my medicine cabinet. And I’ll want a system that recognizes that my needs and my care team's needs are not opposed, but rather part of a larger human system designed to support us both. If we continue to incorporate designers into our health care system, that future may not be so far off.