Perspectives On Design Thinking

Celebrating Design 5: Applying Design Thought in Healthcare

Often the best medical solutions are designed by hospitals’ medical staff themselves.

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In this fifth blog post of the Celebrating Design series, we will take a look at some wonderful examples of the application of Design Thinking in healthcare. Often the best solution designs come from healthcare practitioners themselves. These solutions, mostly, are contextual to the hospital, its specialty, location and are also based on the kind of patients who visit them.

“Take care of the patient and everything else will follow.” (Thomas Frist, MD)

Perhaps the only domain of human activity that goes straight to one’s heart is the activity of healthcare. Despite the tremendous importance of this domain, both as a vocation and as an institution, to human wellbeing and existence, it too is beset with many challenges, such as lack of appropriate and affordable healthcare across all sections of society, lack of good quality medicines and infrastructure, legacy policies by administration, malpractices, profiteering at the cost of life and – most visible of all – the lack of empathy. The last issue being made loud and clear in the Hindi blockbuster Munna Bhai MBBS when Dr. J. Asthana (the dean of the medical college) stated before first year students that he has performed a thousand operations, but his hands are rock steady. Why? Because he doesn’t love his patients. However, his hands might shiver if he had to operate on his own daughter.

In such instances, what should a healthcare practitioner do? Can Design Thinking come to their aid? Here are a few interesting instances of how institutions have leveraged Design Thinking to improve performance and, more importantly, touch patients with empathy.


Changing the scenario to overcome fear

Hospitals can be a dreadful place, especially for young patients. With dark interiors, florescent lights, forbidding machines and eerie humming sounds, taking an MRI scan can be no less frightening for a young child.

Doug Dietz, the creator of the MR Adventure Discovery Series, helped young patients allay their fears by making the scanning process a fun adventure. He helped create a different world for children – a world that took them to magical places making the children feel that the scanning process was an adventure.

The process involved integrating ‘adventure’ activities with the scanning process itself. For instance, children are made to board a small boat and to lie very still so as not to rock the boat. If they do so, they may even see fishes jump over their heads. In another such ‘world’, the emergency room was themed around under-sea coral adventure where children get into a yellow submarine and “listen to the sound of harps whilst the procedure takes place”. Needless to say, this theme based approach has had a very positive impact on children.

Do you know what the From Terrifying to Terrific: The Creative Journey of the Adventure Series are?

When hospital workers innovate

The trauma care section of any hospital is a hectic place where chaos reigns. Typically, any emergency situation is attended by a group of nurses, doctors, and instrument technicians. One doctor is the trauma team leader. In an emergency, how does the team quickly identify the team leader – especially in a sea of white coats? Interestingly, the answer for this important question came from the medical staff of a hospital in Toronto. The answer was simple – an easy-to-spot bright orange jacket that stood out of the crowd.

In another hospital, a group designed a mapping tool that leverages GPS software to study how patients and medical staff move and interact in an emergency room. This was to understand movement patterns to help develop more efficient communication.

Hospitals that give their staff freedom to design often end up creating innovative solutions. The Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia is one such hospital that allows medical students, nurses, doctors and other hospital personnel such freedom. They “design, manufacture and prototype their ideas” that are then used at the hospital.

One such innovation was a new pediatric pain scoring system called CareCube. Patients are told to rate their pain from 1 to 10. This might be simple enough for adults, but how accurate can children be when indicating pain? A toy-based approach seemed a plausible solution. The healthcare staff designed a cube with a unique facial expression, such as frown or grimace, on each with the appropriate pain score written below. When asked, all that the child would have to do is to point to the expression it feels. This would help the nurse in understanding the child’s pain.

Creating a sublime environment for doctors

School of Design Thinking is closely associated with various healthcare institutions and NGOs associated with rural healthcare. Here is an example of how School of Design Thinking has helped a premier cancer institute in Chennai. The institute is one of India’s oldest cancer care centers, founded in the early 1950s. Senior doctors and the general manager of the institute participated in a workshop at the School of Design Thinking to identify the challenges faced by the institute, such as staff attrition, lack of funds and to improve the overall patient experience in the institute. Following the workshop, the management and doctors identified that, as the first step, there was a need for change in the thought process. Ideas were generated for long-term goals. A few immediate low-hanging fruits were also identified. One immediate need was to reduce the stress and anxiety levels at the hospital and to create an atmosphere of calmness in an otherwise serious environment. Playing soothing music in the background, especially when a surgery is being performed can help settle the minds of the surgeon and everybody present in the theater. The second was to effectively use the power tool called ‘Appreciation’ to acknowledge the good work being done at every level in the institute. This not only improves good relations, but also may aid in reducing attrition.

Would you like to know more about Design Thinking and how corporates within India and across the world have successfully leveraged it? Write to us at You may also read about our programs exclusively for corporates.


[1] From Terrifying to Terrific: The Creative Journey of the Adventure Series

[2] Design Thinking for Doctors and Nurses

Related Reading

[1]Celebrating Design 4: Designing Media Stories

[2] It takes a village to fight the pandemic

[3] Social Distancing & Italy

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