Can Designers And Developers Save Health Care?

Because the government’s efforts at doing so are fumbling at best, it may be up to an intrepid group of innovative thinkers to design ways to make our medical experiences better and more efficient.

Can Designers And Developers Save Health Care?

Ryan Lochte’s grill wasn’t the only subject of controversy at this year’s London Olympics. An estimated 1 billion watched an over-the-top montage of everything British during the hotly anticipated Opening Ceremony. The performance, directed by Danny Boyle, best known for films like Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting, featured a boisterous celebration of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), with actual doctors and nurses gleefully swinging around patients and hospital beds. The finale was a megawatt NHS sign covering the arena floor.

This piece is part of a Collaborative Fund-curated series on creativity and values written by thought leaders in the for-profit, for-good business space.

Why such brouhaha? The publicly funded NHS grants medical care to everyone. For free. No bills, no paperwork, no insurance–nada. It’s not without its drawbacks; visits are characterized by long wait times and it’s expensive to maintain. But what is clear, from the Olympics and from any conversation with a Brit, is how proud they are of their health care system.

As I watched, I wondered how the U.S. would choose to commemorate our system given the same opportunity. With costs approaching 18% of our GDP, it is probably not worthy of a musical tribute at the moment. And given the American celebration of free enterprise, we’re not likely to pass socialized medicine anytime soon. But we have a different road to a dance-worthy system, through the talents of the creative designers and developers that are entering health care from other sectors.

From our perch in Silicon Valley at Rock Health, we’re already seeing companies founded by individuals of diverse backgrounds that use technology and design to create better experiences–-and save the system billions of dollars. By putting user experience and design at the forefront, not only do they address problems of access and resource constraints, but also actually improve outcomes. Three areas you can see this outside-in thinking at work are moving from paper to paperless, inviting designers to look at old problems with fresh eyes, and creating patient resources that not only educate, but also delight.

Scaling paper

The U.S. health care system is still largely run on paper and clipboards, which seems unbelievable in a world full of increasingly ubiquitous tablets and smartphones. And as most of us have discovered, a paper brochure on the way out of a doctor’s appointment is not the best medium for effective follow up care instruction.

Nowhere was the opportunity cost of life-saving interventions via paper more clear than with the Diabetes Prevention Plan, or DPP. Born of a clinical research study to determine whether behavior change could outperform drugs, the DPP had unquestionably clear results. Participants who lost 7% of their body weight through dietary changes and increased physical activity dramatically diminished their chances of developing diabetes, soundly defeating the pharmaceuticals. So how was this life-changing intervention delivered to patients? You guessed it: on a piece of paper.

Enter Omada Health, part of our first class at Rock Health, which began its entrepreneurial journey at Ideo. They decided to take a famous diabetes prevention study and put it online, infuse it with social support, and add a wireless scale for tracking and accountability. Applying the design thinking that Ideo is known for, team Omada not only exceeded their projections for efficacy, they also made a product that their users loved. So much so that the pilot groups asked that the platform remain open even after the program officially concluded.


Omada Health is becoming the gold standard in group-based programs for chronic disease prevention, tackling issues through technology and thoughtful experience design. Their founding team featured an experience designer, a Harvard med school dropout and killer developer, all of whom combined their rich experience to create something that was not only effective, but also a joy to use.

From Fashion Week to Hospital Hallways

The designer of today’s flimsy hospital gown clearly had an exhibitionist side. While it’s true that the open back and thin fabric serve functional purposes, providing easy access for doctors and nurses to give injections and detect vital signs, patient experience is clearly secondary in this equation. In the context of our complex health care system, providing less drafty clothing seems like a small give with huge results, right? It turns out the hospital gown hadn’t seen a redesign since the 1920s, until when a few years ago high fashion interceded.

The Cleveland Clinic’s Chief Experience Officer, Dr. Bridget Duffy, heard firsthand the impact that these papery garments had on patients, and decided to recruit an expert who truly understood the power of well-designed clothing. Her co-conspirator? Why none other than the curator of fabulous fabrics, fashionista Diane von Furstenberg. The designer collaborated with the Cleveland Clinic’s team to create a bright and cheerful gown based upon the design of her iconic wrap dress. Patients loved it because it was colorful and returned their stolen dignity, and physicians were still able to access exactly what they needed. Everyone wins and, bonus, looks good while doing it.

Visualizing Anatomy

How much does the average patient remember about a doctor visit? Turns out, not much. A patient’s ability to remember details of an appointment drops precipitously from the moment they step out the door, with 80% of the information forgotten immediately, and 50% remembered incorrectly. And because none of it is recorded or accessible via email, there is virtually no way to understand a diagnosis without the help of WebMD or other oftentimes confusing online resources.

After 30 years of telling patients the same thing over and over, only to be peppered with confused phone calls days later, a spinal surgeon decided to create an app called SpineDecide to help his patients understand their diagnosis as well as the anatomy of the spine. And it worked, leading to less calls, more efficient visits, and increased patient satisfaction. SpineDecide inspired the founding of Orca Health, whose mission is to provide best practices and teach patients about their conditions and anatomy. They’re also firmly design-centered, utilizing gorgeous 3-D models and zooming to actually make learning fun and engaging. Orca’s subsequent apps have been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, won awards, and most importantly, changed the way doctors are able to communicate with their patients.

Our best national resource is our wealth of entrepreneurial and design talent. Armed with the right tools and resources to help the doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals out in the trenches every day, they can power the next generation of health care in this country. Perhaps given some time, they’ll even help to build a system that is worthy of song and dance.


About the author

Leslie Ziegler is the chief evangelist and part of the founding team at Rock Health, a nonprofit foundation encouraging entrepreneurs at the intersection of health care and technology through an incubator, events and research. Prior to Rock Health, Leslie worked as one of the first employees at an early stage start up, and spent over eight years in advertising, at agencies including McCann Erickson and DDB, with clients ranging from (RED), Starbucks, Intel, Pepsi and Microsoft