Designing for Health and Wellness: Emerging Trends for Medical Design

October 16, 2018

Healthcare has no shortage of design challenges. These challenges are complex and cannot be solved solely by an engineer developing a medical device, a hospital administrator developing a patient flow, or a surgeon getting creative after many long hours of surgery. The IDSA medical device design conference last month in Boston brought up a plethora of challenging medical issues and highlighted the importance of tackling these hurdles through a truly collaborative and  interdisciplinary approach between players in both the design space as well as the users and stakeholders on the medical side. Beginning with two interactive workshops on problem identification and problem-solving, the conference kicked off with an overview of methods to address the issues that would be discussed during day two.

The following takeaways offer an overview of the problems and the tools we, as designers and creative problem solvers, can leverage to improve medicine for ALL users.

1. Medical Contextual Inquiry is Tough…Don’t You Dare Mess Up

How do we design for experts and specialists when we are far removed from their world? This is a big question that looms in the minds of many designers when it comes to the medical space. Sean Hägen of BlackHagen Design led the first workshop on contextual inquiry and shared his wealth of experience navigating research in the medical environment over the past several decades.  Sean stressed the difficulty of getting into hospitals to do user research, the importance of not messing up once you’re there, and the value of having a backup plan. Despite the hurdles associated with conducting research in a constrained hospital environment, Sean made it clear that this type of contextual inquiry is crucial to gain the insights needed for a project’s success.

IDSA Medical Device dDesign Conference 2018
Sean Hägen leads workshop on contextual inquiry

2. Eliminating Blinders and Tackling Core Problems with Context

Designers have a responsibility to peel back the blinders that corporations and hospitals sometimes subconsciously wear to obscure difficult problems. It’s a luxury to ignore these difficult problems. As designers, it’s a luxury we don’t have. If we’re not dealing with the problems, who is? In the healthcare space it’s likely the patients and exhausted healthcare professionals who are saddled with them. The second workshop session, led by Trent Kahute of Thrive, concentrated on the synthesis of research using tools like experience mapping to tackle the core of a problem without distraction, but at the same time, stressing the value of understanding context beyond the core problem. As Trent explained methods for getting around the blinders and understanding core problems, he continued to highlight the need for context. No medical problem exists in a vacuum.

Trent Kahute leads workshop on experience mapping

3. Designer as the Rebel, Sherpa, & Peacekeeper

The modern role of a designer is shifting from vision creator to more of an interdisciplinary communicator. This new position is key in the world of technologically and organizationally complex systems.  Chris Rockwell of Lextant commented on the challenges of getting everyone on the same page, saying “designers are in the alignment business.” This idea that it is the responsibility of the designer to fight through the bureaucracy, constraints, and regulations to safely deliver the concerns of the user to the end product was one that really resonated with the audience and came up in multiple presentations.  Designers will be asked to sherpa the needs of the user through the complex medical system.  Bob Schwarz of GE Healthcare advised the audience to always approach these challenges by being “subversive with goodness in your heart.”

The modern role of a designer is shifting from vision creator to more of an interdisciplinary communicator.

4. Diagnostics and Data

When we think of diagnostics in the medical world, we think of patients and diseases. Dr. Teodor Grantcharos, a professor of surgery at University of Toronto, is using his own form of diagnostics to identify mishaps in medical procedures – a sort of meta diagnostics. He has created a “black box” for ORs to identify what went wrong in procedures using a combination of cameras, sensors, patient physiology measures, and audio. Were the surgeons overworked? Was the room poorly laid out? Were the tools inadequate? Was the door opened too many times?

This is a high-level and very data-centric way to look at medical challenges and one that could form a strong partnership with design as a way to correlate things like errors and fatigue that are difficult to identify. Tools like this could also help with the problem of access to ORs and the concern that the presence of researchers could create problems in the procedure. Dr. Grantcharos hopes these black boxes will collect the data necessary to leverage AI to quantify performance and make troubleshooting more proactive and less reactive.

Check out Dr. Grantcharos’ TedX talk for a full overview of the black box approach.

5. Voice & The Movement Towards Zero UI

Voice control is infiltrating many areas of our lives as a means of simplifying interactions and making information more accessible. In the medical space, voice control has the potential to become a powerful behavior-changing tool. Voice control is being studied as a tool in the operating room for hands-free control, in patient recovery to free up nurses, and in elderly care to offer companionship. Aiden Petrie from Ximedica has been experimenting with Amazon Alexa’s potential to shift the focus of healthcare from preventing death to promoting humanity. He feels voice control has the power to not only tell people that “you’ll live longer if you don’t do that,” but also to give consistent nudges that promote a healthier lifestyle between doctor visits.

Petrie brought up a number of examples of AI already being used in the medical space. At present, many users are limited to training, rehabilitation, and diagnostics. However, the potential for AI in the medical space, especially regarding home-based healthcare, is extraordinary:

  • Dr. AI is a medical version of Pandora – aggregating diagnostics and opinions of many doctors
  • Marvee is a voice solution for elderly care including companionship and easy interaction
  • Alexa Diabetes Challenge, sponsored by Merck, prompted the world to think about how voice-enabled prompts can improve the lives of diabetics

6. AR as a Prototyping Tool

Environmental context for a product is important in any industry, but particularly in the constrained and cluttered medical space. Bobby Garfield and Alex Dupont from Radius spoke about how they have combined physical prototypes with AR environments to streamline the process of testing and traveling with prototypes without losing environmental context.

7. Versatility of VR

A few years ago, VR was a novel technology for the gaming world.  This year, it was refreshing to see applications for VR in so many different areas of medicine. Austen Angel of Modern Edge focused on the potential for VR to be used as a pain management tool to replace prescription drugs in the context of the opioid crisis. Pavitra Krishnamani, from DICE group at Jefferson Hospital discussed the use of VR for PTSD treatment of veterans, gait training after injuries, social training for adults with autism, and training of medical professionals. The DICE Group has also developed a code-blue simulator that puts the user in the shoes of the code leader giving medical professionals valuable emergency simulation. No longer just a cool vehicle for gamers to consume content, VR is changing the way we approach rehabilitation and training in medicine.

No longer just a cool vehicle for gamers to consume content, VR is changing the way we approach rehabilitation and training in medicine.

8. Educating the Next Generation

The conference closed with a hopeful and future-thinking panel on design education led by Mitzi Vernon, Dean of the College of Design at the University of Kentucky.  The panel discussed how we can better prepare designers to work in the technical, complex, and highly regulated field of medicine. The panel stressed the importance of maintaining traditional design skills (ex. visual thinking) while continuing to augment traditional design education with new ways of thinking and problem solving. Vernon walked us through her work on a very modular design curriculum that enables more cross pollination and interdisciplinary thinking throughout the design education process.

Summary on Medical Device Design

I came away from the conference with some complicated feelings. I was overwhelmed by the number of problems in the medical world. I was excited by the tools we have to solve these problems. And I felt empowered as a designer to leverage my creative problem-solving skills in the complex medical and healthcare space.

Of course, I was also left with a multitude of questions that can only be answered with time and commitment to taking on the seemingly insurmountable challenges facing the rapidly changing world of medicine. How do we, as non-users immerse ourselves fully enough to understand the products that we are designing? How can designers work beyond a product to influence broader experiences in the medical system? Can a designer really tackle a medical problem in an informed way without an MD? In all these questions, collaboration emerges as the solution…or at least a starting point that makes these existential questions a bit more manageable. No one, and furthermore, not just one discipline, is capable of solving these problems alone.

Existential questions aside, the conference was an incredibly inspiring two days surrounded by a myriad of creative people committed to tackling massive, and often inelegant, problems. Moving forward, it is clear there needs to be a close collaboration between many parties to improve the state of healthcare and bring medicine into the modern era. It’s also clear, although easier said than done, that designers will need to master balancing the roles of sherpa, listener, visionary, communicator, rebel, and peacekeeper throughout the process.

Written by Britt Jensen, Strategist

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