Bringing Design Thinking to Health Care Innovation

By Alexander Bolt

Dell Medical School and the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin are collaborating on an innovative new project called the Design Institute for Health.

“This Institute will systematically use design and creativity to create better health outcomes at lower costs, increase value in the health care system, and improve the lives of patients and providers,” said Beto Lopez, who will serve as managing director.

Lopez and Stacey Chang, who will serve as executive director, are alumni of innovation giant IDEO, a company credited with the creation of the original computer mouse, the folding laptop computerand the Palm PDA device. They and their fellow Institute staffers will examine everything from the “design of health products to the architecture of the hospital to the functionality of the health ecosystem itself,” according to Lopez. Projects range from the redesign of hospital gowns and waiting rooms, to care delivery and insurance payment processes, to funding for graduate medical education, and population health initiatives.

Clay Johnston, MD, dean of Dell Medical School, said, “We have the opportunity to rethink health care by asking, How did we get in this bad health care environment in the first place? Ninety percent of funding is coming from the School of Medicine and the Institute will be focused on issues of health entirely. We will incorporate design thinking into all our training programs, from medical students to practicing physicians.” Dell will admit its first class of medical students in 2016.

Perhaps design solutions to patient interactions even can help ameliorate the physician shortage. “The current system doesn’t allow physicians enough time to meaningfully connect with patients, to understand the personal and emotional issues underlying the physical needs,” Chang said. He believes that the perception that physicians can’t do what they entered the profession to do – to care for patients in a meaningful way – may be discouraging medical school enrollment. The Institute plans to explore how to make practicing medicine more fulfilling by making it frictionless for the doctor.

Innovation is even baked into compensation models. “Because we are not dependent on fee-for-service payments, we are particularly well-positioned to move quickly to value-based compensation, and we plan to take full advantage of that position,” Johnston said. He emphasized the need for efforts to define health outcomes that payers are willing to pay for.

The Institute is keenly focused on patients, and plans to redesign the dreaded hospital gown and to arrive at a clinic design that eliminates the need for waiting rooms. Why? Waiting rooms take up a lot of physical space that brings little to no value: They aren’t private, they often frustrate patients, and they’re a great place for disease to spread.

These days, being patient-focused means reaching out to the patient before they need medical care. The Design Institute will take a collaborative approach to public health in Austin. “The Design Institute plans to help the people of Austin pursue health in ways they want to, as opposed to foisting solutions on them,” said Chang. “This approach requires [us] to be in the community’s shoes, to be with them, and to figure out what health outcomes they want for themselves as well as how they want to pursue those outcomes.”

The Institute seeks to improve coordination in the health care delivery process by creating a holistic approach that allows stakeholders to find mutual benefit. “Doctors, pharmacies, and other groups operate in their own silos,” Chang said, noting that these groups ultimately have the same goal: effective, efficient patient care.

 Alex Bolt is a staff writer at the Association of American Medical Colleges. He can be reached at

4 thoughts on “Bringing Design Thinking to Health Care Innovation

  1. Seems odd that the university’s school of architecture is not involved. The college of fine arts strikes me as an odd choice to make these kinds of design decisions.

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