Design Thinking in Health Care

man wearing black and white stripe shirt looking at white printer papers on the wall

Photo by Startup Stock Photos on


Design thinking describes the empathetic development process for a new product or service. Design thinking is user-focused and includes important time for observing how people interact in the environment where the product or service will be launched.

To understand design thinking and the empathic process used to develop new products, there are a few really good resources on the internet. The most well known pioneer in design thinking is David Kelley, who was a close friend of Apple founder Steve Jobs and developed the first computer mouse. Kelley founded a company called IDEO, which takes on clients who want to develop a better product or service.

Kelley has been featured on national broadcasts regarding IDEO and design thinking. In this interview with Charlie Rose, he explains how it works and talks about his relationship with Steve Jobs:

IDEO was featured on 60-minutes for their work helping to redesign the grocery cart using design thinking. The video is a good high-level overview of the process. How it works:

There are many more resources on the internet for design thinking. IDEO has an online University where they offer courses on design thinking that start from $199 (I have not taken their courses, so I cannot say whether or not I would recommend them). Stanford University has the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, or the “d school”, which is the most prominent academic program focused on design thinking in the United States. They have many resources too for the public to understand design thinking, such as this helpful overview.

Applications in Healthcare:

In healthcare, design thinking can be used in ways ranging from how the patient and their families experience care at the hospital, outpatient office, etc to how the physical building is laid out and designed, to how the equipment is laid out and designed for clinicians. In essence, the possibilities are endless.

As an administrator, the main thing that design thinking is helping me focus on is the patient experience.

Take for example Doug Dietz. Dietz builds imaging equipment for GE and realized that children who had to be tested on his machines were so scared that 80% of pediatric patients had to be sedated to administer the test. To fix this problem, he launched the “Adventure Series” at GE (pictured below), and made the machines look more kid-friendly. As a result of this new design, fewer children are sedated and tests are done correctly the first time, which adds capacity for other patients to use the testing machines.


An Example from the GE “Adventure Series” – photo courtesy GE Healthcare on Flickr

I recently read an article about healthcare disruption in the American College of Healthcare Executives magazine. My favorite quote from the article was from Ian Morrison, PhD, author, consultant and healthcare futurist. He said,

“A lot of outsiders to healthcare view the field as ripe for disruption because it is profoundly dysfunctional. Most entrepreneurs who get into healthcare do it because they or a family member have had a bad experience and were so frustrated that they thought they could start a company and do it better”

Dr. Morrison is right and his statement describes the empathetic nature of design thinking. We can and should do a better job of making the dysfunctional system less-so for our patients by empathizing with them and their experiences in the hospital. Only through empathy are we truly delivering able to help sick patients get better. Those elements need to baked-in to what we do every day.

KEY TAKE-AWAY: Empathy is at the heart of design thinking. Applications for design thinking are everywhere, especially in healthcare. By observing and understanding how people interact with your product and service, the better you can make it.