Design means people first.

Sounds simple enough, but healthcare is far from straightforward. We are beginning to see recognition and adoption of design thinking in healthcare. There are limitless opportunities for healthcare improvement through the lens of design—from policy and process to patient experience.

Design is innately human—it is about understanding the needs, motivations, emotions, barriers, and influencers of others. While the beginning stages of the design process tend to be fuzzy and ambiguous, design provides clarity and understanding when we are willing to commit to its process. Without design, there is no relief from the chaos and ambiguity embedded throughout the healthcare experience—from how the patient encounters the system to management of billing systems and EMRs.


We can think of design as taking a comprehensive view of people, interactions, and experiences. With design, we take on a new perspective and accept vulnerability—we look for issues and position them as opportunities for improvement. We open ourselves up to not knowing all the answers and there is richness to recognizing that we do not know everything. There is power in exploring new territory and carving our own path—positioning users at the center of our strategy. We lead with empathy and awareness to see and understand moments of pain, fear, relief and hope in our patients and stress, frustration, achievement and satisfaction among our internal teams.

What does healthcare look like without design thinking? We see it everyday. It’s apparent in moments of irritation when we ask patients to complete long and complicated forms when they are sick, in moments of confusion when we use advanced healthcare terminology to explain a life changing diagnosis to a family, and when we struggle to be more efficient and raise our satisfaction ratings. There are opportunities for betterment of the patient experience and also our experiences with healthcare as leaders within the system. Without design, we experience:

  • Redundant effort: We do not streamline processes and practices nor make the best use of our resources. We do not take every opportunity as a chance to learn and evolve our approach and ourselves. We work within silos and do not share knowledge and best practices amongst interdisciplinary teams.
  • Fragmented view of experience: We select where we place our attention and do not step back and see the big picture or embrace new ways of seeing a situation. We think apps and wayfinding will change an experience and lose sight of the human-to-human connection. We stop at HCAHPS and go no further.
  • Lack of forward-thinking vision: Incremental change is the name of the game. Our approach is not strategically unified, but rather piecemeal with an unknown trajectory. We are ‘throwing in the dark’ without an evidence-based approach or a unified culture committed to excellence. Our teams function as separate entities and our mission, vision and values are a dusty plaque on the wall.
  • Comfort and safety (at the cost of innovation): We rely on what we “know” to be true and become marinated in the conventional wisdom of the past—resorting to our comfort zones. Because we use hard sell content, we should continue to use hard sell content—whether or not it reflects or resonates with our community. We do not take risks or have the energy to embrace challenge.
  • Solutions first, people second: We assume we know what people need and want, putting our own expertise and ourselves first. It's choosing easy over effective: putting up a billboard instead of building relationships. We lack empathy and cultural understanding, as it takes time and resources to invest in this insight. We force fit technology-based solutions and assume its adoption.

Above all, without using design thinking in healthcare marketing and strategy, there is missed opportunity to serve. We lack a deep contextual understanding of who we are as a healthcare system and the consumers we serve. We are not reaching the people we could be reaching. We need to demand more of ourselves—rethinking the voice of our organization and who is on the receiving end of it. We shouldn’t look at who we are already reaching and pat ourselves on the back, but whom are we failing to connect with? Whose language do we not speak? What values are we overlooking? We can be punitive and judgmental, jumping to conclusions to avoid discomfort, challenge, and the ambiguous nature of ‘not knowing’—or we can invest in building meaningful relationships with the communities we serve.

Without design we cease to grow—as individuals, as professionals, and as an industry as a whole. Healthcare without design is not a viable option. The voice of your organization and the experience of the communities you serve deserve a designful approach to strategy and the messages that you deploy. Without design, we are stagnant, unimaginative, disconnected, and often misguided.

Design is about hierarchy and balance, similarity and contrast, dominance and emphasis, scale and proportion, texture and space, form and function. Design thinking in healthcare is about applying these principles to the interaction of people and business. With design, we craft our messages with the listener in mind—we design our experiences from the vantage point of the consumer. With design, healthcare has the potential to make sense...!

Join the Institute of Healthcare Design Thinking to leverage design thinking into your organization. Infuse the practice of design into your daily habits and enhance your point of view for continuous improvement across the healthcare experience and on both sides of the transaction.