Healthcare Is Broken. And This Designer Thinks She Can Fix It

Healthcare is notorious for being technophobic, clunky and downright ugly. No one knows this better than Gretchen Wustrack, who is trying desperately to change that.
Wustrack, who leads the Active Health group at the design and innovation firm IDEO in San Francisco, has spent 12 years trying to give the healthcare sector a much needed facelift through design. Her approach is part of a growing movement called human-centered design, which aims to redefine how people experience healthcare by focusing on their specific needs.
She is uniquely qualified to do this, having worked with Google to redefine the search giant’s food strategy, with the pharmaceutical industry to modernize clinical trials, and with Kaiser to increase patient engagement. Much of her work deals with talking with people — getting to the nitty-gritty ofwhat they want and how they want to use different types of products. And that, she says, is what design is all about — understanding what people want. The problem with healthcare is that what patients, doctors and payers want is not always apparent, or complementary.
“There’s opportunity for design in healthcare in every nook and cranny,” she says. We sat down with her to learn more.
Wired: Why is design important for healthcare?
Gretchen Wustrack: Healthcare is kind of broken right now. There’s a lot of need for new thinking. That’s exactly where you bring design in – to think differently about a complex system and come up with fresh solutions. Our approach to design, which is human-centered, which is systemic, is exactly the right tool for deeply understanding the challenges, the people and finding new solutions.
I was brought up to think design was much more art, that it was about beautiful objects. It is that, but it’s also fundamentally about problem solving. It’s understanding where things can be better. That doesn’t mean things can’t be beautiful. I think that’s an incredible tactic for solving problems.  If we can create beautiful products and desirable apps and things that just make us engage on a visceral level, that’s a tool for getting people to do what they need to do to be healthy.
Wired: What are the challenges to bringing good design to health care?
Wustrack: The big challenge is that you’ve got all these players intersecting. You’ve got regulatory agencies. You’ve got healthcare providers. You’ve got insurers. You’ve got patients. To move the needle is really a challenge. It’s about creating a common vision. The time is ripe to make some big changes. It’s not all going to happen in one fell swoop. I think it can happen in small ways. We  might learn something from those smaller, more tailored experiences that can apply to the healthcare system at large.
I think that’s why there’s a real opportunity for startups. They’re identifying a need. They’re not trying to change the system in one fell swoop. They’re trying to meet the needs of a small group of patients or providers. If that works for that group of patients or those providers, or those insurers, then that becomes a bright spot that we can cultivate and spread hopefully.
Wired: How do you approach design in the context of health care? Is it designing better-looking products or better workflows within offices or hospitals?
Wustrack: It’s all that. I know it sounds really fuzzy, but I think that’s the power of design. It can tackle any – and all — of those challenges. We, as end users and potential patients, need solutions at every level, from the packaging our medication comes in to new healthcare services. What are the digital services that will help us become healthier faster? What are better experiences in the clinic or in the hospital? What are new ways physicians can communicate information to us that we’ll actually hear? Because most of the time they’re talking and we’re not picking it up.
We recently completed a project with a major pharmaceutical firm in the Bay Area to redesign theclinical trials system. That’s a big systemic challenge.
Wired: What was your approach to that?
Wustrack: One of the problems is this move from blockbuster drugs to a more personalized approach to medicine. They found that if they were to keep doing trials the same way, which has this incredible overhead, they’d go bankrupt. So it was about creating a more nimble system that could reach patients in more dispersed geographic areas. Keep those patients engaged throughout the trial so it lowers your recruiting requirements, basically make it a more distributed site model.
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