Rice Students Refine Their Design Solutions to Health Care Problems

Second in a series

By Jennifer J. Salopek

Last month, I reported on an innovative undergraduate English course at Rice University that introduces medical students to design thinking and inspires them to apply its principles to health care problems. I introduced you to Michael Fisch, MD, chair of the Department of General Oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and “problem owner”; and to Erich, Veronica, and Aaron, the students who are working to solve the problem. The course is taught by Kirsten Ostherr, PhD, and Bryan Vartabedian, MD.

Much has happened in the past few weeks. Course participants have moved forward with their projects and have undergone a second evening critique, in which they presented prototypes of their designs. “The students have moved from a general description of the problem and their solution to one that is much more particular to the setting and recognizes the complexity of the problems,” Ostherr says.

“There was a clear evolution in the project visions between the first and second critiques, and each solution has unique attributes,” says Vartabedian.

Fisch, who attends many of the classes as well as the evening critiques, is very enthusiastic about the progress demonstrated by all of the groups. “I was very impressed with the second-round presentations across the board,” he says. “My team can describe the problem succinctly and the underlying basis for trying to solve it. They are aware of the current solutions for connecting patients to trials, and can make a good case that those don’t work well.”

Other teams are working on such diverse topics as how to redesign cardiovascular ICU rounds; how to get older adults with diabetes more engaged in their care by setting measurable goals; how to help more patients become e-patients; and how to tell the complete story of patients’ experience of living with an artificial heart. The problem owners—all respected experts in their fields—commit to meet with the project teams at least three times during the semester, hold virtual office hours, and attend three evening critiques.

Paul Checchia, MD, is director of the cardiovascular ICU at Texas Children’s Hospital and owner of the problem about rounds.  “My problem affects me every morning on service,” he says. “It is chaotic and potentially dangerous.” Checchia is so impressed with his student team’s solution that he is planning to implement parts of it right away and has invited the team to address the faculty. “I’m a big fan of broadening medicine to include other viewpoints,” he says.

Despite the course’s stated focus on digital innovation, technology, and social media, the clinical trials team is pursuing its vision of a non-technology-based solution: to train and position clinical trials navigators in hospitals. They envision these people as “human information sources” who also can respond to patient questions and concerns online.

“I like the solution because it’s integrated with the health care system rather than a one-off,” says Fisch. “It’s respectful of physicians, which is key, because doctors can destroy solutions in a heartbeat if they’re not on board. And I was impressed not only with the solution but with the style of the presentation.”

SAVE LogoThe student team has devised a name and designed a prototype logo for their initiative, which is called SAVE. Veronica Kuhn, one of the team members, recently wrote in a post for the course blog,

Many communication problems in medicine require tailoring the solution to the individual patients. Some may want warm and caring doctors, others want their physicians clinical and direct. Some may engage eagerly with apps, while others have trouble mustering the motivation to get out of bed. These sorts of digital trails provide several unique perspectives: the medical and physiological angle, the relationship angle, the personal and introspective angle. How can we harness and combine these perspectives to create better solutions? And how can we respect privacy and patient concerns while we do so?

“This group is working on a really broad scale,” says Ostherr. “We really wanted the students to have a great degree of mentored freedom to design their solutions. Not all are designing apps.

“Another thing we have learned is how engaging this process is to a variety of stakeholders,” she continues. “I have been amazed and delighted at how willing people are to participate. I think there is a hunger for the kind of engagement the design process facilitates. Although these projects are a huge amount of work, they deliver something that is way beyond a class assignment.”

Jennifer J. Salopek is founding editor of Wing of Zock. She can be reached at jsalopek@aamc.org.