Design Can Improve Healthcare; Can It Also Lead to New Cures?

The kind of design thinking championed by Steve Jobs -- human-centered, iterative, and practical -- can fix more than just our gadgets


Of all the areas of human endeavor touched by Steve Jobs, perhaps few stand to gain as much as healthcare, where the design principles he popularized and demonstrated remain so urgently needed. Yet, his tragic death at the age of 56 also challenges us to ask whether design principles can help drive medical science itself, and identify novel therapies.

The greatest legacy of Steve Jobs -- as many have observed (see here, here, and here) may be in design, and specifically, his ability, in the words of Steve Gage, "to take this enormous complexity and make something a human being could use." While Steve Jobs did not discover design thinking, he is probably the one person most responsible for our visceral appreciation of the concept.

Device makers are focusing on the user experience and hospitals are trying to pay more attention to the holistic needs of their inpatients.

Tim Brown, founder of the design consultancy IDEO, describes (PDF) design thinking somewhat formally as "a discipline that uses a designer's sensibility and methods to match people's needs with which is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity."

Brown also offers a more useful characterization of design thinking: an "approach to innovation" that is "human-centered, creative, iterative, and practical." Design is at once an approach and a sensibility (see this [PDF] useful "bootcamp bootleg" from the Stanford D-school, or most anything written by Donald Norman).

While in some circles (radiating concentrically from Palo Alto, one imagines), design is, if not quite passé, at least associated with irrational exuberance and extravagant expectations (see this 2009 posting by Peter Merholz, founder of the user experience consultancy Adaptive Path, and the energetic dialog his remarks engendered), these principles have made only very preliminary inroads into medicine and healthcare.

For starters, medicine is far less "human-centered" -- that is, patient-centered -- than most observers appreciate. In the exact same way that well-intentioned engineers often go awry by creating features based on their own perception of what they perceive users must want, medicine has spent a lot of effort focused on a physician's idea of a patient, rather than developing a more nuanced view of life from the perspective of the patients themselves.

Physicians have surprisingly little visibility into a patient's day to day health experience -- doctors typically have no idea whether a patient actually took their prescribed medication (data suggest the level of adherence can be shockingly low), took their medication correctly (video studies of patients taking injectible or inhaled medicines reveal remarkable variability), or adhered to behavioral recommendations (you have to ask?).

Doctors also have little sense of a patient's daily experience with their disease -- their daily blood pressure, say, or ability to inhale deeply -- to say nothing of less concrete but arguably more important parameters such as mood or quality of life. The physician's episodic assessment of a patient's health, an occasional snapshot, may not always capture all, most, or, in some cases, almost any of the patient's actual experience with disease. Worse still (as discussed here), the absence of more granular knowledge of patients means that doctors have virtually no idea of whether they are providing effective care or not -- are patients even following their advice, is the advice doing any good, and are the doctors even focused on the issues most important to patients?

Presented by

David A. Shaywitz, MD, PhD, is a director of strategic and commercial planning at a biopharmaceutical company based in San Francisco, and the co-author of Tech Tonics: Can Passionate Entrepreneurs Heal Healthcare With Technology? More

Trained as a physician-scientist and management consultant, Dr. Shaywitz has experience in clinical drug development and strategic and commercial planning. Dr. Shaywitz is co-founder of the Center for Assessment Technology and Continuous Health (CATCH), a Boston-based initiative to use improved real-world measurement to improve care and drive science. He also is co-founder of the Harvard PASTEUR program, a translational research initiative at Harvard Medical School, and a founding advisor of Sage Bionetworks, a non-for-profit medical research initiative focused on open innovation. He works at a biopharmaceutical company in San Francisco; the views expressed in his postings are his own and do not represent the views of his employer. Dr. Shaywitz is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His personal website is:

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

Just In