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Design Thinking for Nurses

Throughout the course of their education and career, nurses learn numerous strategies to assist with decision-making, communication and even stress management. As patient-centered care becomes the desirable healthcare model, a new problem-solving approach that prioritizes the potential impact on patients as well as other end users like nurses has emerged.

First cultivated by businesses to develop user-friendly products, design thinking is now being applied to healthcare services as a way to more effectively meet patient needs, improve outcomes and make informed budgeting decisions. As more online RN to BSN programs and employers encourage design thinking, nurses will have the opportunity to leverage their expertise in order to solve critical issues facing today's healthcare system.

What Is Design Thinking?

While the concept of design thinking has evolved over several decades to reach its present form, it gained mainstream traction when the global design firm, IDEO, adapted the concept into a business model that could be reproduced across multiple industries.

According to IDEO, design thinking "utilizes elements from the designer's toolkit like empathy and experimentation to arrive at innovative solutions. By using design thinking, you make decisions based on what future customers really want instead of relying only on historical data or making risky bets based on instinct instead of evidence."

How Does Design Thinking Apply to Healthcare?

Although design thinking was originally created to assist with product development, it has been introduced as a viable alternative capable of solving complex patient problems, improving services and spurring innovation.

While hospital administrators have historically been tasked with creating new policies and procedures -- a process frequently handled from the top down and often without much input from those on the frontlines -- design thinking uses a human-centered approach. It relies on insights from those who have a deeper connection to and understanding of the patient experience like nurses, physicians and the patients themselves.

Based on the collective knowledge of these individuals and with consideration for the end users' feelings and needs, the work toward a solution commences. Through a rapid cycle of idea generation followed by prototyping and ongoing testing, ideas are refined and retested until a viable solution is found. Since feedback is encouraged at all stages of development, end users -- whether they are nurses, patients or other care team members -- have the opportunity to share their opinions frequently and further guide solution development.

What Improvements Are Possible with Design Thinking?

As more hospitals and healthcare facilities dedicate space, sometimes called makerspace, for teams to carry out prototyping and trialing of each design recommendation or idea, the reach of this methodology continues to expand. Kaiser Permanente has used designers to improve patient care and provider experiences since 2003 as has the Mayo Clinic's Center for Innovation since 2008. The CareCube, a toy-like pediatric pain scoring system that uses facial expressions instead of numbers, was developed at Philadelphia's Jefferson Health Design Lab through the collaborative efforts of nurses, physicians and patients. Nurses at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston leveraged access to their makerspace to create a portable, three-headed shower for burn victims, simplifying the laborious method previously used by nurses in the emergency room and providing faster access to critical care and treatment.

The advantage of design thinking is that it is possible to successfully apply the method to virtually any situation or problem affecting the delivery of care. Whether the primary goal is to increase access to treatment, improve patient outcomes, or address budget or scheduling concerns, the discovery of effective solutions appears to be most dependent on having in place an interdisciplinary team of end users -- from nurses and patients to accountants and IT professionals.

Intentional Design

As each facet of the healthcare system advances toward patient-centered care, design thinking provides a new way for nurses and other members of the care team to approach problem-solving. With a constant cycle of idea generation and feedback from those who will be directly affected by any potential solutions, this tactic fosters multidisciplinary teamwork, innovative thinking, and a fresh perspective on both acute and long-standing issues.

Learn more about the University of Texas Permian Basin's RN to BSN Online.


IDEO: Design Thinking

The New York Times: Design Thinking for Doctors and Nurses

Harvard Business Review: Health Care Providers Can Use Design Thinking to Improve Patient Experiences

NEJM Catalyst: Making Design Thinking a Part of Medical Education

Popular Science: The First Makerspace in a Hospital

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