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St. Joseph's Health Centre Toronto

The art of designing health care

Health-care professionals are problem solvers by nature. But as health care becomes increasingly complex, creativity is becoming more of an essential skill for clinicians to learn and incorporate into their practices. That was encouraged at a recent workshop at St. Joe’s – students were challenged to think outside the box in coming up with new solutions to meet the needs of people living with chronic illnesses. At the workshop, the learners – who are in school to become physicians, social workers, nurses and therapists – heard stories from patient advisors about their experiences of living with disease and worked with them to co-design solutions that would improve their quality of life.

“The importance of an exercise like this is that it gives students another tool to be able to tackle the vast variety of problems they will come across in their career,” said Dr. Rishie Seth, Interim Director of Department of Medical Education, Research and Scholarship. “Working with patients to develop new ideas about how to address these issues gives them permission to approach problems in a different way.”

The goal of the day was for learners to work directly with patient advisors to learn more about the problems and pain points they experience living with their disease and develop new approaches to help them live their best lives possible. This is a process known as design thinking, which is increasingly being seen as a way to enhance patient care, advance the patient experience and potentially decrease provider burnout by allowing the opportunity for clinicians to flex their creative muscles.

One group of students worked with Ann Corbitt, a patient advisor who lives with Celiac disease which has impacted her ability to receive nutritious food in hospital. They created an education plan that could be implemented to raise awareness with staff both on the frontlines and who are working with food vendors about requirements needed by this patient population.

For patient advisor Colin Gillies who lives with a chronic pain disorder called polymyalgia rheumatica, the students came up with a solution incorporating existing technologies including augmented reality goggles that allow wearers to engage in dancing or sculpting to encourage movement – a proven distraction technique and a high-tech jacket that acts as a personal heater to keep the wearer warm.

“It went from being a bunch of disparate ideas that I’d explored to something I could believe could be engineered,” Gillies said. “I’ve been thinking about that day ever since.”

Sean Molloy, Senior Director of Quality, Patient Safety and Innovation, said that educating students in principles of design helps future clinicians think differently about how they might make an impact on patients and members of the community that they will be working with.

“Really when you think about people working in health care, they already are problem solvers – that’s what they do,” he said. “Design thinking allows us to widen the frame in which we develop solutions for patients – it moves us from thinking about how to treat a disease to considering how to design solutions that enable a person’s health.”

Vinyas Harish is a software engineer and first-year medical student at the University of Toronto who attended the event and said it reminded him why he wanted to study medicine – to be innovative.

“It’s being willing and motivated to think about how we can make something better with patients and families on board,” he said. “Design goes a long way in being able to implement the best sort of care because at the centre of good design thinking is the user and at the centre of good health care is the patient.

“The patient advisor we worked with at the event challenged us to think about his condition – Crohn’s disease – and really try to understand his perspective. A few weeks later, we actually had some teaching about Crohn’s at school so reflecting back on this experience added a whole other aspect to my learning,” he said. “It wasn’t just a condition we were learning about – I could picture someone living with this and knew how it impacted them on a daily basis.”

Harish was so excited about the event that he’s hoping to inspire others at his school to engage in design thinking.

“It would be awesome to see a spinoff where there’s a design thinking in medicine group for students,” he said. “But our real goal is to incorporate this into the undergrad curriculum because I really think this could change the way our future physicians think not only about medicine but also about improving the health of Canadians.”

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