Matthew Trowbridge, MD MPH: Establishing human-centered design

The practice of medicine is changing at an unprecedented rate both at the level of individual physicians and the system as a whole. Today’s student doctors will be called upon to help lead necessary shifts to more patient-centered care while also integrating highly disruptive technological advances ranging from personalized genomics to ever more sophisticated medical use of 3-D printing. Yet, despite this approaching paradigm shift in practice, medical education is not keeping pace.

Our team believes that achieving competency in human-centered design (HCD), often popularly referred to as design thinking, can help prepare future doctors to be successful and impactful in the midst of rapid changes in the healthcare practice landscape. To this end, the University of Virginia (UVA) School of Medicine has approved our team to pilot a specialized curriculum, entitled the Human-Centered Design and Medical Innovation program. First year medical students participate in a year-long set of workshops and hospital-based applied projects based on principles of HCD & design thinking.

The fall semester workshops are spent learning basic principles and skills of design thinking: interview skills, user data collection, idea mapping, data synthesis, rapid prototyping, and diverse approaches to interdisciplinary collaboration. Teaching is highly applied. For example, this past fall, students learned and immediately used HCD skills and concepts to better explore personal health topics relevant to themselves and fellow medical students. For example, in the pilot, students examined the issue of establishing and maintaining healthy eating practices while adapting to realities of being a 1st year medical student.

In the spring semester, currently underway, the focus shifts to applying design thinking techniques to current, real world, complex challenges facing UVA health system itself. For example, our current pilot program students are working closely with UVA quality improvement team to capture patient perspectives on the issues of improving home healthcare support for patients with complex medical issues and inpatient fall prevention.

This is the first year of the HCD and design thinking pilot at UVA medical school. Therefore, a formal evaluation remains forthcoming. However, our pilot program demonstrates both clear demand among 1st year UVA medical students and feasibility within their heavily structured schedules. In response to an introductory email, 50 of 160 incoming medical students expressed interest in the program, 30 attended an information session during orientation, and 10 students were ultimately accepted via an essay-based application and series of interviews. Feedback is very positive with students expressing strong appreciation for the applied aspect of the program – particularly the opportunity to practice skills such as interviewing, synthesis, and prototyping.