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How Design Thinking Can Improve Patient Experience

healthcare-design-thinkingAn electronic mannequin is splayed on a stretcher in a fictional emergency department, shouting in pain. Nearby, an actor portraying that mannequin’s brother is frantic with worry. This isn’t a scene from a play. Rather, it’s a scene playing out in many top hospitals—an exercise in design thinking.

Exercises in design thinking put actual doctors and nurses at the bedside of fictitious patients where they interact with fictitious family members, all in an effort to improve patient experience.

Actors and state-of-the-art mannequins can do a lot more than provide training to medical professionals interacting with them—they can provide a real-time, actionable list of what your facility can do to improve patient experience. Here’s an example from Stanford Hospital.

A lesson in empathy: While a team of real doctors is working on the fake patient and tending to his or her family, usually another team of doctors is serving as the actors meant to be that fake patient’s family.

It’s not always possible or practical to ask a real patient about his or her feelings or the feelings of his or her family during an emergency, but the family of actors can provide valuable input to the doctors caring for the patient as well as themselves.

“We want to know what their unmet needs are. Our patients have told us they want us to know them and to understand them. Applying design thinking to health care is an invaluable way for us to do that,” Alpa Vyas, Stanford Health Care vice president for patient experience, told Stanford Medicine.

The professionals participating in Stanford Hospital’s design thinking class, which also involved interviewing real non-emergency patients and their families, discovered “patients wanted a regular flow of information to help them better understand what was happening, and they wanted to know that their care providers were communicating with one another. Coordinated and clear communication, they said, would do much to relieve their heightened anxiety and fear.”

Students of that design school class then presented their findings to hospital administrators and emergency medicine professionals.

How to Incorporate Design Thinking into Your Facility

It may seem like a big undertaking to get started with design thinking at your hospital, but it can be easier than you think.

Look at your environment: Design thinking is all around us, says the Institute of Healthcare Design Thinking.

Take putting on your shoes or socks in the morning as an example. Is there something about how the shoe or sock is designed that makes the experience frustrating or easy? Is there something about your environment—like whether you’re sitting on a chair or on the floor—that improves the experience or makes it more tedious? These everyday experiences can provide the inspiration for examining how our healthcare facilities can improve patient experience through design thinking.

Empathize and find the problem: You now have a unique view of your environment, and are likely noticing some things that could be changed. The first step in bringing design thinking to life is discovering the problems and empathizing with those who experience them. This can involve interviewing patients and families, like the Stanford students did in the above example. You might be surprised with what you learn.

Brainstorm, create a plan and ask for feedback: Now that you are aware of the problem, sit down and brainstorm ways you can solve it, then create a plan or prototype, and finally, test that plan or prototype and ask for feedback from others like doctors, other hospital staff and patients and their families.

Design thinking helps you to reframe how you look at your environment and deal with its issues. This new perspective can give you the ability to create messages and experiences with the patient in mind, significantly improving an experience the patient likely views as unpleasant and anxiety-producing.

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