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What Does a Doctor Do at a Design Firm?

There’s a design-driven revolution brewing in healthcare. The business world has come to recognize design thinking as an essential ingredient for so many outcomes — success, sustainability, accessibility. … Healthcare is next.

You may have seen signs of this shift in higher education — at medical schools such as Dell Med in Austin, at Kaiser’s new medical school in California, and at Philly’s own Jefferson University, where design thinking is a big part of the curriculum.

Likewise, architecture and medical product design firms are beginning to employ health professionals to work side-by-side with designers and engineers. At Bresslergroup, where a good portion of our work is for healthcare clients, this integrated approach makes a lot of sense.

What Does an MD Do at a Design Firm?

Design impacts how well someone ultimately gets treated. If the device or system isn’t being used successfully and correctly, a patient doesn’t get treated and nothing gets solved. So how do I fit in? How do I integrate my medical background into my work as a user researcher at a medical product design firm?

Graduating from medical school enabled me to put two big letters after my name, but more importantly it gave me a deeper understanding of the “mindset” of the healthcare industry and particularly of clinicians. Being immersed in that world is highly instructive from an ethnographic point of view. There’s no equivalent to walking in someone’s shoes. I now have the background to understand the ins and outs of the industry from a clinician’s perspective, as applied to the minutiae of day to day care all the way up to the workings of the larger system.

As an MD working in design research I’m a bit of an odd duck, but my numbers are growing. My reasons for studying medicine were always about answering questions and helping to solve problems, and ultimately, I pursued an MD because I wanted to validate that research and gain further insight into the entire healthcare system that I could not gather from the “outside.”

#1: We Provide A Different Mindset

Researchers are in the business of finding problems to solve; doctors are in the business of finding solutions.

Physicians are taught to think inside a two-part framework of symptom and cause. My medical background definitely brought out my analytical nature. Figuring out a particular diagnosis is not all that different from determining the root cause of a use event (or why an incident or failure occurred).

In medical product design, usability research is often an afterthought — it’s something done at the end, after clinical trials, to pass a validation testing requirement for the FDA to ensure a device is “safe and effective.” Subsequently, design often becomes an afterthought. Physicians will often think, “If it works and looks decent enough, then who cares?!” But by now, we’re all realizing there’s much more to it than that. You simply can’t expect something to look nice and assume patients and clinicians will know how to use it.

In healthcare design, usability research is too often an afterthought — it’s something done at the end to pass a testing requirement.

For example, eight years ago I worked on the research and development of a device that looked gorgeous at first glance. It was back when Apple was first iterating the iPod, and the team thought it would be great to imitate the smooth, sleek white visual of Apple products. We put a relatively finished product with a similar “smooth and sleek” look into the hands of users only to discover they couldn’t find the power button! That was when I had that “aha” moment about the need for user research as early and as often as possible.

The notion of iterating — thinking creatively, prototyping, and testing lots of solutions — to figure out the most intuitive design is relatively foreign to anyone who is only focused on getting quickly to the end result. Designers hope to help clinicians hone their ideas. We just bring the additional refinement. Clinicians are the source of genius, and we provide the tools to convert their genius into insights that will lead to the most successful solution.

#2: We Bridge the Gap

Many days you can compare my job to being a translator — from clinicians on one side to designers and engineers on the other, and vice versa, and I just try to be fluent in all of the above languages! I’ve been there with physicians in the trenches, and I try to understand the challenges they face within the framework of their work environment based upon my own personal experiences.

Clinicians are the source of genius, and we provide the tools to convert their genius into insights that will lead to the most successful solution.

This tends to help enormously when I go into the field to interview physicians during research. Once they learn my background, the dialogue often becomes more open and candid. Even if I don’t have very much experience with their particular specialty, it can be easier for me to discuss the problems they’re facing and what we can do to address them.

For a recent project for a medical device startup, our entrepreneur clients were asking for the device to provide an enormous range of specifications. My engineering colleagues had a ton of questions about those requirements, and I was able to come in and hit pause to make sure we were asking the right questions. Did we really need all that? It turned out we didn’t — and this is something that would’ve been discovered later on during testing, when it would have been prohibitively costly to go back and redesign.

On another occasion we were brainstorming a design for a surgical device, and I noticed while watching videos of this type of surgery that the tool in use didn’t provide enough ergonomic assistance. None of the competing products did, either. We incorporated an ergonomic feature that will be an important point of differentiation when the device goes to market. The whole project team watched the same videos, but my medical training enabled me to see something different.

#3: We Examine the Ripple Effect

Product development is often focused on the product itself (and rightfully so!), but it’s essential to the success of the product’s life cycle to consider how it fits in with the overall workflow of the entire system. When you develop a product for single use, you may not have thought through how that product affects everything around it. But there’s always a ripple effect. When startups come to us with ideas, I’m able to help the entrepreneurs see how changing that one product will alter the ecosystem.

When you develop a product for single use, you may not have thought through how that product affects everything around it. But there’s always a ripple effect.

This manifests itself in my work in many ways. One example concerns a software system designed to help patients manage their care. I helped the client conduct research on this system from the back end. The system is meant to give healthcare professionals the data to make recommendations for their patients’ care based on lab results and common treatment methodologies. The client was working with a particular physician specialist, but the system was also intended for use by certain technicians and nurses. The client tested it with nurses, physicians, and technicians, but ultimately the technicians said it was something they’d never use without physician supervision.

From personal experience, I knew that this technician could never sign off on the care decisions that were being recommended by the software without permission and sign-off by a physician, and I only wish that I had been brought onto the project two weeks earlier. I would have read the protocol, made this observation, and saved the client significantly. This is exactly the kind of unique insight an MD working on a design team can bring to a healthcare project.

A Prescription for Empathy

Most articles about design thinking in healthcare focus on the use of human-centered methods to gain a deeper understanding of patients. That’s essential, of course, but I consider my value-add to include the empathy I’ve gained along the way for clinicians and healthcare professionals. Achieving better outcomes across the board and lowering costs requires empathy for both patients and clinicians. We’ve all been patients at one point or another, but we haven’t all worn scrubs.

This nontraditional career path has brought me to the exact right place (for me, at least!) at the intersection of medicine and design. I love what I do. Being an MD at a design firm lets me make a real difference in people’s lives by helping to ensure their experiences with medical devices are safe and effective.

Read about our Medical Product Design expertise.