Last night I was invited to speak and debate about the world of Health and Design at  big potatoes event in London. The setting was a basement room in a shoreditch italian restaurant.

The topic of the evening was a debate about design and its role in improving healthcare, particularly in Britain. It was part of the  ongoing development of something called The Big Potatoes Manifesto. This seems to be an attempt at creating better awareness and public debate about design’s role in public service. In preparation for the event I was asked to put together some thoughts on healthcare space and how design can or should play a role.

As a designer and someone who has worked for large pharmaceutical firms, currently advises the US Department of Health and Human Services on their innovation efforts, and in my role at OpenIDEO, I’m passionate about health and wellness and designs role in it. I think it’s an exciting time because the power has shifted from insurance and medical companies to the consumer.

It’s a really interesting time to be working in the health space because the power is shifting for the first time from the large multinational insurance companies, medical, and pharma industry to the end user. You can see this in how traditional healthcare is being disrupted increased availability of medical knowledge on the internet and in the form of mobile apps.

New services have popped up that have enabled greater transparency between medical providers and their patients, empowering people to make more informed decisions. When we lived in California recently we got to try some of these services first hand and they included iphone apps that enabled you to access your own health data, record your own health data such as weight or diet, and view doctor’s notes and historical data such as blood tests and MRI scans.

This power dynamic is also evident in the proliferation of health focussed startup incubators. It was announced recently that the FDA cannot keep up with the sheer number of new consumer apps, most of which, it fears, are inefficacious and potentially harmful.

We live in a time, particularly in the UK, US, but also globally, where the prevalent trend is one of an ageing population. This is placing greater emphasis and demand on the health systems we have in place, but also greater public awareness of the needs of this demographic. To complicate matters further, these recessionary times we live in are harder for people to stick to healthier decisions as people tend to be more short-termist in their outlook. This is evidenced by how well the snack industry is doing right now and how poorly it was doing prior the the downturn in the economy.

So how can design play a role in this space? Here’s four things I’ve seen where design can play a vital role:

  1. Making tools and services more intuitive for the end user. Whether it’s the physician, care giver, or patient, user-centered design can improve the intended outcomes by making the tools and services less of an obstacle and more of a seamless part of the patient’s care and caregiver’s day to day life. Some examples include the Diabetes Pen IDEO designed for Elli Lilly, or the Organ Transporter for ORS.
  2. Encourage the healthcare industry to think systemically about their goals and challenge the brief. All too often design is criticised for its role in improving situations in hospitals and care centres (The UK’s Design Council’s more recent work in A&E for instance). To avoid this criticism, designers need to use their ability to create collaborative processes and engage all the necessary actors in a system to help solve a given problem. That means engaging not just the patients and care givers, but the security personnel, the janitor, or the receptionist. By doing this at the start of (and throughout) the process, we can make sure we’re involved in solving the right problems in the first place, and have in place the necessary actors to affect the desired change.
  3. Help people see problems from different perspectives. Too often, executives in the industry have become removed from the day to day patient experience. Bringing these professionals on user-shadowing activities or playing back a video of the patient’s experience can be truly transformational to help change perspectives on what’s important.
  4. Equipping the change-makers with the right tools and confidence to sustain change. At IDEO we see design not just as a tool or a process that designers use, but a way of thinking that anyone can learn to help solve problems in a creative, human-centered way. This is why we’ve created open source toolkits such as the HCD Toolkit, and communities like OpenIDEO.com to open up the process to spread this way of thinking. It’s really encouraging to see other firm’s do the same thing – Frog recently released a fantastic toolkit that is focussed on creating impact: http://www.frogdesign.com/collective-action-toolkit. On OpenIDEO we have a challenge right now that’s particularly focussed on how we can improve the health and wellness of whole communities which is sponsored by healthcare provider Bupa: www.openideo.com/open/well-work/.

What other ways have you seen design play a vital role in improving health? Do you think design overplays its role or should be doing more to challenge the health industry? I’d love to hear your thoughts.