St Mary's Hospital in London looks like any other large teaching hospital, with one exception. Perched on the street in front of the hospital's stately brick facade is a contemporary-looking design studio, made almost entirely of wood and glass.
Inside the studio, a group of eight designers and a handful of doctors brainstorm ideas for new products they hope will improve the experience for patients and, in time, lower health care costs.
"We think of the hospital as our testbed for ideas," says Maja Kecman, one of the designers at the studio, which is called Helix. "Many health startups operate on the edges and look in, but we take a different approach."
Helix opened in 2013 with some £4 million (roughly $6 million) in grant money. What's unique about Helix is the access: The designers have a special clearance to shadow doctors and nurses at St Mary's hospital. They regularly spend an evening at the trauma center or sit in on doctor-patient consultations.
"At St Mary's, we see all sorts of really quite horrific injuries, which can be quite harrowing for the designers," says Matthew S. Prime, an orthopedic surgeon and one of the clinicians working with Helix. But he says the designers focus most of their time asking patients about their experiences, like whether they felt rushed or understood their doctor's instructions.
"To get that kind of access to patients is unique," Prime explains. "You almost certainly wouldn't get it at a design consultancy."
The designers' goal is to develop health products that can scale globally. Some projects in the pipeline include an end-of-life care app and a service to help patients with glaucoma take their meds.
Kecman says one of the biggest challenges is prioritizing one idea over another in a broken health care system. One way designers do that is by pursuing the potential solutions where they see a clear way to make money.
Oftentimes, they'll hear from clinicians about a problem on their ward, but find themselves uncertain whether they can solve it. One question they're currently pondering is whether they can help a nurse who recently approached Kecman to alleviate her patients' pressure ulcers.
Once the team homes in on an idea, they use design-thinking methods popularized by the Silicon Valley-based design firm IDEO to develop an initial product. IDEO espouses an approach that puts human needs at the center of the design process.
The first product they've taken outside the hospital is a new method to screen for bowel cancer, which has already been delivered to about 7,000 patients in Wales as part of a trial. In the UK, people who turn 60 can expect a birthday card from the National Health Service (NHS) accompanied by a surprising, and somewhat uncomfortable, request for a poop sample to test them for bowel cancer. For the trial, recipients will get a new sample kit and educational resources, including an animated film that explains why it's important to get screened.
St Mary's is just one of many hospitals and clinics that are investing in design. "I'm seeing a growing trend of designers and design teams being embedded in a clinical environment," says Aaron Sklar, a designer at Aetna-owned Healthagen.
The Mayo Clinic has its own in-house innovation lab, called the Design Research Studio, which focuses on improving the delivery of care. And One Medical, a U.S-based primary care group, has hired clinical systems designers to explore ways to make the experience easier for patients.
"Any design intervention and innovation at the point of care has an opportunity to have an immediate and powerful impact," Sklar says.
But most hospitals will employ outside consultants, rather than hiring an internal design team. Unlike the designers at Helix, these consultants tend to focus on finding ways to cut the budget, rather than on improving how patients are treated.
"For years, we've been bringing in outside management consultants to the hospital," Prime says. "This is different. It's far more than just number crunching."
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