Design Thinking in Healthcare

How do you better understand who your patients are and then create an entire ecosystem of care?

–Suzanne Gibbs Howard, Dean of IDEO U

In our Creative Confidence Series chat with IDEO Design Researcher Silvia Vergani and Principal Research Scientist at Verily Life Sciences Danielle Schlosser, we discussed the challenges and opportunities in healthcare innovation today and how healthcare practitioners can begin to apply a more human-centered approach to their work. When design thinking methodologies are applied to healthcare they lead to a human focus and an openness to generate and test lots of ideas to find more innovative, far-reaching solutions. 

Applying Design Thinking to Schizophrenia Care

With a deep expertise and passion for working with individuals with schizophrenia, Danielle Schlosser wanted to change the way we think about schizophrenia treatment. While working toward this goal at the University of California San Francisco, she became curious about the design thinking approach and how IDEO may be able to help.

Shortly after meeting Silvia and her team at IDEO, Danielle was surprised by the types questions they asked and the style of their approach. “The design researchers asked me so many questions that made me think differently about a problem I’d been thinking about for a really long time. I loved being challenged with new ideas in a space that I’d thought I was an expert already.”

An early insight came for Danielle when Silvia conducted her first interview of a schizophrenia patient. “She didn’t use clinical terms during the interview and she connected so well with the patient, putting him at ease and getting him to open up and express himself.” Danielle realized that Silvia was anticipating talking to a person while she herself was anticipating talking to a patient. “I realized that the providers in the clinical system itself are part of the problem because I was not seeing my patient as a person first. This was tough for me to admit to myself.”

As a result of the work between UCSF and IDEO, Danielle and Silvia’s team created Prime—an app that helps individuals with schizophrenia achieve goals and engage with others for support. The aim is to improve quality of life and alleviate hard-to-treat symptoms within this population, and so far the early trial results are promising.


I realized that the providers in the clinical system itself are part of the problem because I was not seeing my patient as a person first.

Mindset Shifts in Healthcare

Danielle and Silvia mentioned three mindset shifts that are currently moving healthcare in a more human-centered direction.

1. Shifts to Value-based Care

Healthcare is moving beyond the walls of hospitals and into communities and the role of healthcare providers is shifting. We’re seeing new questions like, what do we do about loneliness; as it turns out loneliness is as much of a killer as smoking and diabetes. These types of questions lead to a better understanding of patients and creating whole ecosystems of care.

Dahlia Campus in Denver is a great example of healthcare adapting to the needs of the community. It’s an integrative health center in a neighborhood with limited access to healthy food and resources. Before opening, Dahlia sought insight from the community around what would help them improve their health. They've focused on building around the needs of the community and thoughtfully measuring the impact of their approach.

2. Shift from Being Reactive to Proactive

Everyone is empowered to get to know their bodies and their health before anything is wrong with them. Health is becoming this process of self-exploration, which creates entry points for people into healthcare offerings. We’re seeing a shift from healthcare to consumer products that can help us better understand who we are.

Examples of these consumer products include 23andMe, Color Genomics, and uBiome.

3. Balance High Regulation with Experimentation

Privacy and risk committees often block tools out of security controls. But there’s opportunity to invite people to be fully informed about the choices they make in terms of the technology they use and give them the choice to opt into the tools. We should have high standards of privacy and make sure our tools are secure, but there’s still room to experiment and use informed consent to prototype tools that may not be ready for primetime yet.

Apply Design Thinking to Your Healthcare Challenges

Start by defining the problem you’re trying to solve early. Before moving toward solutions, spend time gaining a deeper understanding of the needs of the people you’re serving. Find the pockets of creative work happening out in the field, go out, and get inspired; get in context with people.

Once you have an understanding of the people you’re serving, start ideating. Brainstorm, what might be some solutions; what might be some ways of approaching this? With a long list of things to try, you’ll feel more comfortable experimenting and failing, knowing that you have many more ideas. The idea isn’t to succeed immediately but to learn as much as possible.

Learn more about building the skills and abilities to deepen your design thinking practice with our Advanced Design Thinking Certificate.

Interested in more design thinking exercises? Check out our Design Thinking Resources page.

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