A New Kind of Med School

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Kicking off the first workshop on contextual inquiry at Jefferson’s new Accelerator Zone space

I recently had the pleasure to develop and lead two design workshops for first year medical school students at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia at the invitation of Dr. Bon Ku, director of a new design co-curriculum in the medical school. The CwiC (College within a College) Design Track “seeks to foster creative thinking in medical students in order to assist them in developing novel and innovative approaches to challenges in healthcare delivery, research, and education.” This amibitious and visionary program will organize a series of design workshops, lectures, site visits, and capstone projects for a select group of students accepted into the program. This will be no small feat for the students to complete, given that this curriculum runs in addition to an already grueling schedule in the regular med school curriculum.

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Two medical students interviewing an attending physician in the ER

The first cohort of med students began the track in early February with a day-long design thinking introductory bootcamp led by David Janka, who is on faculty at Stanford’s d.school. After David gave the 15 students a crash course in the basics of design process, I then built on that foundation with two workshops focused on redesigning aspects of the patient experience in Jefferson University Hospital’s emergency department.

The first workshop helped them understand in more depth a suite of basic design research methods, and how these are so essential for understanding complex systems and services, and for building empathy with the people who are a part of them. With a set of contextual inquiry methods and tools in hand, the med students set off for the ER, shadowing physicians, nurses, other staff, and patients in different environments and processes. They returned to the following workshop with dozens of photos and pages of notes documenting what they saw and heard, as well as their initial interpretations.

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Students in the second workshop synthesizing their research data

With all of their raw documentation of the ER gathered, for the second workshop the med students began to make sense of the qualitative data through visualization techniques, affinity diagramming and stakeholder mapping. They created personas based on what they learned and who they had spoken to in their research, and then they used those personas to better understand the systems they were zeroing in on through user journey mapping. This helped them to identify a few pain points within the systems, which they then used to define a problem to address through rapid ideation and prototyping. Interestingly, many of the students had learned from patients about how frustrating waiting in the ER is (in various stages of the care process) and how uncommunicative the system is about wait times — not surprising for anyone who has visited the ER! What was so compelling was that each team of students had identified multiple and different underlying issues causing long waits and the associated frustrations. Each of their prototypes then attempted to either alleviate the symptoms of prolonged wait times, or tackle one of the root causes for wait times and poor communication.

These were very quick, albeit intense, experiences for the students, and they will continue to accumulate more of them over the coming semesters in the CwiC Design Track. The creators of the design curriculum believe that it will transform them as physicians and give them a new set of capabilities and mindsets rooted in design thinking, thus better equipping them to lead within an uncertain future for healthcare in this country. As an outsider looking in, I am impressed with how fearless and passionate the 15 med students are for embracing the design process. It’s exciting to be a part of such an important shift in how future doctors are trained.