What is the role of design thinking in global health delivery?

by Alexandra Geertz on December 1, 2011

We were lucky enough to have Jose Colucci, IDEO’s Health and Wellness lead in Boston, join our class yesterday for an interactive workshop on design thinking and human centered design.  We’ve spent much time this semester looking at different business models and evaluating the care delivery value chain (see this great article for an example of applying value chain mapping to HIV care) to help us think about improving global health delivery in low resource environments.

Jose’s workshop on human centered design reminded us not to forget the patient experience. He argues that by observing consumer and patient behavior, we’re able to identify missed opportunities for change.  Furthermore, by rapid prototyping ideas early and cheaply, companies and organizations are able to test and evaluate new products and services with less risk.  (Jocelyn Wyatt and Tim Brown explain IDEO’s perspective on social innovation here; Brown’s explanation of design thinking in a 2008 Harvard Business Review article features Aravind Eye Case System, an organization we examined in class).

Here’s one interesting case study he shared on a provocative Bedsider national campaign to prevent teen and unplanned pregnancies in women ages 18-29.

So how do we apply this perspective to global health? It’s certainly important to fully understand the patient experience in a field like health where the challenges that patients are facing are complex and spill over beyond simply the immediate health needs.  But how we do that will be critical.

There was an interesting debate (critique and response) between Bruce Nussbaum and Emily Pilloton of Project H Design about the risk of creating a “new imperialism” when embarking on humanitarian design projects globally.  And this is certainly an important conversation to be had.

For people working in global health, Unite For Sight’s Design Thinking module–part of their social entrepreneurship online course–gives you a nice starting point.

But what’s important, and I think why Jose’s workshop was really valuable to our class, is to bring a new sense of creativity, innovation and risk taking into the health sphere.  Organizations like Riders for Health are doing just that by improving transport and logistics, mostly through an innovative motorcycle fleet and maintenance system (for more on what we learned by examining them in class, see our three detailed posts on Riders; the first explains the model; the second adds more resources and discussion; and here’s the most recent).

By looking differently at the patient and healthcare experience, and prototyping new and different ideas early, hopefully we will see more innovations and wide scale impact at every link in the care delivery value chain.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bohan Liu December 12, 2011 at 1:08 am

I found IDEO’s emphasis on human centered design in developing solutions for improving health among the poor to be especially innovative and insightful. Although many new technologies are constantly being introduced to address problems in global health, significant challenges exist with usability by local health workers. In fact, a design approach that optimizes the user interface is often critical to success of new products or technologies. Given that successful companies, such as Apple, have committed to maximizing customer usability, health organizations should also follow suit and adopt a design oriented strategy.

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