Rice Design Thinking Students Unveil Solutions at Final Critique

Third in a series

By Jennifer J. Salopek

Over the course of the spring semester, we at Wing of Zock have been following with interest the progress of a group of students at Rice University. These students, all Rice undergrads but not all pre-meds, enrolled in an English course called the Medical Media Arts Lab. The course paired groups of students with health care professionals to create solutions to real-world medical communication, visualization, and design problems by applying critical thinking and theory to hands-on design. One of those groups has been working with “problem owner” Michael Fisch, MD, chair of the general oncology department at MDAnderson Cancer Center. On April 24, 2014, the students in the course unveiled their final solution designs at an evening critique session, and I had the privilege of being there.

I was accompanied by Ann Bonham, PhD, chief scientific officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges, who had been invited by the course instructor, Kirsten Ostherr, PhD, to serve as a guest judge of all of the student projects.

Dr. Fisch’s group—Erich, Veronica, and Aaron—tackled the problem of how to encourage more adult cancer patients to enroll in clinical trials. It’s an issue that has vexed Dr. Fisch for some time: “Too few patients enroll, enrollments take too long, sometimes they never end,” he told me in an interview. He signed on as a problem owner for the class hoping that fresh perspectives might yield unique solutions.

The student group, which took the name SAVE, proposed the recruitment and training of Clinical Trial Navigators (CTNs), hospital-based and –contracted staff who could meet with patients post-diagnosis in person or via HIPAA-compliant teleconference. The advantages of this approach, the students asserted, are multiple, including that CTNs could connect with patients during the relatively small window of opportunity; and could put a human face on the potentially bewildering world of clinical trials.

The students also acknowledged the challenges to hospital adoption of their model, including cost and hospitals’ possible fear that CTNs might transfer patients away. They are proposing a 12-month pilot study using CTNs with lung cancer patients at Texas Medical Center.

The other student groups presented their solutions as well, which ranged from a cellphone app (“DiabEZ”) that physicians could use to track adherence among diabetes patients; and a flat-screen-based EMR information interface that could revolutionize rounds in the cardiovascular ICU. Paul Checchia, MD, the problem owner working with the ICU group, plans to have the students address his staff.

“We were really invested in having real problems to solve,” says Ostherr. “Every single student came out of the course with an understanding of how to identify a problem and find a solution, working in teams. They have a set of tools they can use rather than just ignoring the problems they encounter.”

The critique gave Dr. Bonham and me an exciting perspective on the energy and innovative thinking taking place in medical schools today. She sums it up:

“I was privileged to be a final judge of some remarkable and innovative approaches to improving care by teams of students who were presented with a challenge in clinical care and then asked to design a solution. The questions were real-life: how to engage patients in cardiovascular ICU rounds in a respectful and meaningful way, how to empower patients to engage in managing their own care through technology, how to use digital innovation to connect medical centers with local oncology practices and patients for participation in clinical trials, and how to capture the inspiring story of the artificial heart to build a public understanding to medical research.

“These kinds of learner experiences are exactly what we need to advance care and medical research, and importantly, brings in the creativity and enthusiasm of students who can see the excitement of helping others.”

Jennifer Salopek—Jennifer J. Salopek is founding editor of Wing of Zock. She can be reached at jsalopek@aamc.org. Follow her on Twitter @jsalopek.