A Better Way to Health Care Reform: We Need an Information Design S.W.A.T. Team

Long before the current debate, an op-ed piece appeared in the Washington Post positing that the U.S. health care system was critically ill. The diagnosis? Terminal Information Design.


Long before the “town brawls”, “grass roots vs. Astro-Turf,” and “death panels” became the three rings of the health care media circus, an op-ed piece appeared in the Washington Post positing that the U.S. health-care system was critically ill. The diagnosis? Terminal Information Design.


The article ran on January 2006 and was written by Leslie Smolan, a designer and co-founder of our agency. It described her disastrous experience dealing with the Medicare system while tending to her father, who had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage after a fall. However, it also brought to light a fundamental problem inherent in our country’s health care system.


Entitled “My Designer Prescription for Medicare Ills,” Smolan’s article exposed the plague of bad information design that grips our system and bewilders even the highly intelligent. The piece describes the common symptoms of the “diseases” ranging from Information Discontinuity to Information Dysfunction to Information Overdose:

We began to get pounds of paper from Medicare, pounds more from the secondary insurance company, not to mention individual bills from cardiologists, anesthesiologists, oncologists, radiologists, psychologists, urologists, helicopter and ambulance services and hospitals. They contained page after page of doctors’ exams and procedures: electrocardiograms, echo exams, Doppler echo exams, Doppler color flow add-ons–and on and on. A quick scan of the individual costs was frightening: $980, $692, $575, $331, $133, $468, $107, $214, $107, $214 …and 37 more similar charges, all on the first statement!

And then Smolan prescribes treatments based on successful models that exist in the commercial sector:


Take a look at your year-end American Express statement. Using chronology, categorization and clear presentation, you can see your spending “history” at a glance. A comparable system of itemization for Medicare would save patients and doctors countless hours of work.

Many claim that we have the best health care in the world. Probably true but navigating the fine print to make it work requires tons of time, plenty of patience, dogged determination and a Ph.D. in Advanced Cryptography. The medical institutions and the insurance companies mine this impenetrable Web of obfuscation for gold and they benefit from the status quo. Change is bad for business.

I’m as confused as many Americans are about the reform bills being proposed by Congress. This already mirrors the chronic communication and information design problems that Americans deal with everyday. Look at any statement you receive from a health insurance company and the only thing that is clear is its lack of clarity.

This whole problem started with the administration’s less-than-stellar communication strategy. The question seems simple enough: Isn’t the current health care/health insurance model due for a 21st-century upgrade? Those that agree raise your hands.


The President’s team seemed oddly flat-footed when they introduced their plan and were ill-prepared for the politically-motivated opposition to any reform. I’m no pundit but I am a designer and even if a bill is signed into law there is an excellent chance of failure in implementation unless it includes a massive overhaul in how providers and insurers write, design and distribute their customer information. This demands that expert graphic designers who deal with complex information and communication systems be an integral part of the plan from its inception. Even if no bill is passed, these measures should be employed to fix the existing mess.

I have great faith in President Obama. Given all that is on his plate, his high energy, intelligence and drive are essential in these times. I also acknowledge that health care reform is more complex than picking off a few nasty pirates from the deck of an aircraft carrier. However, armed with a S.W.A.T. team of information designers, we can help ensure the President’s initiatives have lasting success.

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A Better Way to Health Care Reform: Is There a Designer in the House?


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Ken Carbone is among America’s most
respected graphic designers, whose work is renowned for its clarity and
intelligence. He has built an international reputation creating
outstanding programs for world-class clients, including Tiffany &
Co., W.L Gore, Herman Miller, PBS, Christie’s, Nonesuch Records, the W
Hotel Group and The Taubman Company. His clients also include
celebrated cultural institutions such as the Museé du Louvre, The
Museum of Modern Art, The Pierpont Morgan Library, The Chicago Symphony
Orchestra, and the High Museum of Art.

About the author

Ken Carbone is a designer, artist, musician, author and teacher. He is the Co-Founder and Chief Creative Director of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design and branding company in New York City