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Can Design Thinking Reduce Stress in Healthcare Environments?

If you’ve been to the doctor in the past decade, you’ve probably gotten an earful about stress, and rightly so.

The more it’s studied, the clearer it becomes that stress is the crucial, unseen factor in nearly any health-related situation, making the difference between recovery and relapse, between wellness and disease, even between life and death.

So it’s no surprise that stress-reduction has become a primary goal for millions of Americans, as evidenced by the proliferation of yoga studios, meditation clinics, life coaching services, and decluttering specialists.

The more it’s studied, the clearer it becomes that stress is the crucial, unseen factor in nearly any health-related situation.

In healthcare environments, however, the shift has been slower: medicine is a famously cautious industry. We’ve all experienced visiting a hospital or doctor’s office that doesn’t seem much different, outwardly at least, from how it appeared in the ‘80s.

But the medical industry has lately been making strides in its recognition of stress as an obstacle to healing. We’ve noted and contributed to several projects where design thinking was leveraged to create a calming experience for both patients and clinicians.

Here are a few examples of instances where a human-centered approach was effective:

Rethink Medical Products from the Users’ Perspective

Most medical technology is still relentlessly pragmatic, with arcane controls, piercing alarms, and flashing lights that make every alert feel like a crisis, especially to a bewildered patient. The combination of high stakes and overwhelming information density means every alert is designed to be loud and unmistakable, resulting in “alert fatigue,” even among seasoned medical professionals.

design thinking and healthcare

One solution to this type of problem is to take a human factors approach, examining user workflows, and redesigning interfaces to put the most useful information for a given task front and center, while quieting down less crucial information. It’s an approach that’s worked well in other mission-critical interfaces like military flight displays; Bresslergroup contributed to a related study that looked at information delivery in the design of the hospital ICU.

The great challenge here is to reduce intrusiveness without reducing effectiveness. In consumer products, an alert so subtle that it’s occasionally ignored is an irritation, but in a hospital, it could mean disaster.

Recent developments in context-sensitive technology offer some promise here: a medical instrument could use proximity sensing, or react to the RFID transmitters in staff IDs to go “quiet” when no one nearby, then “wake up” when needed (or when a bona fide emergency occurs). It’s a kind of interaction seen increasingly in the smart home sector, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t make medical environments more responsive and, ultimately, more healing.

Harness Technology To Take a “Skip To the End” Approach

Of course, an even better approach is to remove the stress-inducing steps entirely. The mi-eye+ device by Trice Medical is essentially a “needle you can see with.” It lets doctors diagnose joint injuries without sending patients through an MRI machine — a noisy, expensive, claustrophobic process that makes a distressing experience even more so.

design thinking and healthcare

Another client, BK Ultrasound, released the Sonic Window, a small handheld device (pictured, below) that gives care providers a clear picture of the tissue beneath a patient’s skin, allowing for more accurate IV placement. It may sound like a small advance, but given that half of all pediatric IV placement attempts fail, it represents a massive reduction in stress for kids who are already suffering. The Sonic Window increases the success rate of IV placements in especially difficult patients, including the elderly, obese, and seriously ill, from 50 to 80 percent.

design thinking and healthcare

If this “skip to the end” approach sounds familiar, it’s because it’s been a driving philosophy in consumer app and device design for years. Everything from Spotify and Uber to the Nest Thermostat and the interface on Tesla’s electric cars has been warmly embraced by users because they use technology to cut out steps, getting you to the desired outcome more quickly, and with less uncertainty. Applying ideas from the consumer world to medical interactions just makes good sense.

Borrow from Consumer Product Design

In fact, this melding of consumer insights with medical technology even has a name: “medsumer”. Besides shaping healthcare hardware and environments, the medsumer approach is also influencing how we design take-home medical devices.

There’s no doubt that improvements in more user-friendly personal medical devices have made a huge difference for millions of patients — observations and recovery support that once required multi-day hospital stays can now be taken home, saving money and effort, and getting patients into a more familiar (and less stressful) environment. Making these devices fit into daily life, though, is a thorny design challenge. They must be accessible, but protect inexperienced users from dangerous errors. They must be unobtrusive, and not stigmatize users, but still make their functions intuitive and transparent.

design thinking and healthcare

This is where the medical/consumer overlap sees its greatest potential. Fitness trackers like the FitBit are already being pressed into use by doctors as discreet, easy-to-use alternatives to more expensive medical electronics; smartphone apps are part of the tech-savvy caregiver’s toolbox, offering accessible ways to track diet, mood, exercise, or prescription compliance. For designers, consumer electronics present a wealth of ideas for improving the user experience, since they’ve not only gone through years of iteration in the marketplace, they’ve also created standards for product design and interaction that many patients are already familiar with.

Think of the Healthcare Environment as a Workplace

But as I mentioned up top as related to “alarm fatigue,” it’s also important to not overlook the most frequent users of medical technology: the caregivers themselves. Intrusive alerts can startle and confuse patients, but for nurses, doctors and technicians, they’re a constant background din that wears on nerves, day in and day out. This matters, not just in creating a more humane workplace, but in improving patient outcomes: a calm, relaxed caregiver is less apt to make mistakes, and more likely to convey that state of mind to the ones they’re healing.

design thinking and healthcare

Increasingly, we’ve seen our clients in the medical industry ask for the kind of consideration in product and interface design that was once reserved for consumer products. In a recent project we completed for a medical startup called BAEBIES, we were tasked with designing a blood screening device (pictured, above) that could be used in a neonatal nursing ward. Beyond streamlining the testing procedure to make it more intuitive to use, we also worked to “calm down” its appearance, with softer, rounded forms and less intrusive audio and video alerts. The result is a product that looks at home in a room full of newborns, and contributes to an overall sense of ease and well-being — just as important to the comfort of an infant as a soothing voice and a clean blanket.

For another medical client, BD, we designed the Phoenix M50 antimicrobial susceptibility testing lab equipment that is half the size of the previous-generation device. It’s also stackable for modularity, and multiple units can be controlled by a central user interface. All of this decreases bottlenecks in the lab and enhances workflow for technicians. This product also reflects the evolution of BD Diagnostic Systems’ visual brand language we designed for their line of  lab equipment to communicate simplicity and approachability with curved fronts, rounded corners, and palette of calming colors.

Empathy + Technology = The Potential To Transform

As technology develops further and healthcare continues to embrace design thinking and a human-centered perspective, the imperative to reduce stress becomes more widely embraced — and some truly wonderful possibilities open up.

design thinking and healthcare

Take a look at experimental concepts like the Anna Breathing Assistant, an IxDA award-winning student design (pictured, above) that turns the sedation process into a breathing game for kids. With just a ring of LEDs and a well-considered, breath-controlled interface, it turns what could otherwise be a frightening ordeal into something approachable and understandable — even fun.

With this kind of empathy coupled with technology to realize concepts, design has the ability to transform medical environments and devices — not just softening their rough edges, but making them a fully integrated part of the healing process.

Learn about our Medical Product Design expertise.