Design Thinking in Healthcare

Something I’ve been coming to grips with over the last few weeks has been this concept of ‘Design Thinking.’ The term has been bandied around a lot recently and seems to be very ‘in’ at the moment, so I wanted to look into this further. An article I came across in the Harvard Business Review defines it as such:

“…People need their interactions with technologies and other complex systems to be simple, intuitive, and pleasurable. A set of principles collectively known as design thinking—empathy with users, a discipline of prototyping, and tolerance for failure chief among them—is the best tool we have for creating those kinds of interactions and developing a responsive, flexible organizational culture.”

Complex systems…that sounds a lot like Healthcare, maybe we should be paying attention…

Before I explore what Design Thinking consists of, I want to delve in a bit further into this idea of creating a pleasant interaction, let’s call it ‘experience’ shall we?

There are a number of different domains when it comes to defining quality in health care and a number of organisations have taken it upon themselves to define them.

The Kings Fund

Interestingly, Patient-Centred (or patient experience, to put it another way) is the only domain that is universal to all.

Though it stands to reason that all aspects of Healthcare would then be designed in a patient-centric manner (going by our own measuring stick), we know this not to be the case.

Critics may well argue that safety, effectiveness, clinical outcome and cost are all far more pressing concerns and Yes, they are important. But the Patient-Experience and these other domains are not mutually-exclusive. As Healthcare matures into the era of chronic disease management we must accept that the system is but an influencer and it is the Patient who must manage their condition. Therefore, anything we can do to maximise our role as influencer will bear fruit in all these other domains too. And how does anyone maximise their role as an influencer? By providing the Best God-Damn Experience of course! Theatrics aside, this is what we’re seeing in small pockets of the world as they move towards New Models of Care and the fruit has well and truly ripened.

Returning to Design Thinking in healthcare, it really encapsulates the methodology for creating the best possible experience for our patients. Though a number of tools exist the one I’m most familiar with is the Stanford model, which I’ll touch upon below:

Stanford University


Through a process of observation and listening you begin to understand the experience of your service user (sometimes for the very first time!). Values are understood.


First step completed you can now define what the problems are.


Brainstorming- do it with as many stakeholders as possible, why not with your service-users (this is co-production!). The broader the team, the more innovative the ideas.


Give life to your ideas, use your imagination, be creative in how you do this.


Does what it says on the tin. Failure is allowed, sometimes it’s more useful.

Design Thinkers use different tools and methods to facilitate each step. These may seem slightly alien to those of us in the Healthcare space, they focus on the emotion, the experience, the feelings and the solutions can be creative and radical at times.

I don’t think you can put all your eggs in one basket and for me, picking and choosing is the key. For far too long, we have wilfully de-prioritised (neglect felt a bit strong) the ‘Patient-Experience’ and we’re now picking up the pieces. In moving forwards however with these New Models of Care (where the patient-experience is key), design thinking is fundamental, but to keep us ‘science’ types happy let’s chuck in a bit of Quality Improvement (QI) methodology as well please.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out how Design Thinking, Value Based Health Care, Living Labs, Co-Production and New Models of Care all seem to be sitting on this Smorgasbord of Healthcare for the 21st Century, enjoy!