How Design Thinking Is Disrupting the Status Quo in Health Care

Author: Casey Gale       

The word “design” isn’t usually associated with health care. But in order to make the industry more navigable for professionals and patients alike, design thinking is the exact methodology necessary to push health care forward.

“Design is really a creative approach to problem solving,” Stacey Chang, executive director of the Design Institute for Health, a collaboration between the University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School and College of Fine Arts, says in the latest video for The Intersection, presented by PCMA and PSAV. “It’s an age-old manipulation of environments. Architects — they’re designers, too. They change what surrounds us to better serve our needs.”

But health care has yet to embrace design thinking. The challenge, Chang says, is that industry professionals often get caught up in thinking about emerging technologies that will affect health care without considering the human aspect that also requires attention. “And while [technology will] have an effect, [it] won’t actually have an effect if you’re not actually solving for fundamental problems that humans in the system have,” Chang says. “With design, we always begin with the humans in the system … and understand where the dysfunction is for them.”

Design thinking is used to make life easier, but to work correctly, it requires people to accept continuous change — something that’s not easy for everyone to swallow. “That’s probably one of the hardest things people can accept is change,” Johnnie White, CAE, CMP, senior director of global education, meetings, and strategic partnerships for the American Academy of Otolaryngology (AAO), said in an interview. “They get set in their ways.”

White uses design thinking in a specific part of the health-care field: medical conferences. Like Chang, White aggregates data from the people who matter most — in White’s case, attendees — to design ways to better their conference experience. Based on personal experience, he’s learned what helps people accept unwanted change.

“For example, every year our program was set with certain sessions in the morning and then certain sessions in the afternoon, and that’s the way it’s always been,” White said. “Two years ago, we changed that whole format and we started to integrate all the sessions throughout the day. There were a number of people who just initially had issues in accepting that, but what helped them get over the hump is really pushing the benefits of what we’ve done now.”

By explaining that AAO attendees now can see sessions throughout the day that they typically had to wait until the afternoon to participate in, many accepted that this change provided them more educational opportunities at the conference. “I think the key when you’re making changes is really explaining all the details of that change and the benefits of the change,” White said, “of how it’s going to benefit you with you going through that experience.”


1. Overcome your fear of failure. That is where the learning occurs.

2. Seek ways to define what differentiates your methodologies, your systems from others.

3. Find ways to apply design principles to solve problems and to overcome institutional inertia.

Watch the latest video from The Intersection.

Become a Member

Get premium access to provocative executive-level education, face-to-face networking and business intelligence.