How UT Austin's human-centered design program will give healthcare's future changemakers a 'different kind of courage'

A new master's program focused on human-centered healthcare design aims to bring care delivery back to basics, sparking change "at the human level," according to Stacey Chang, executive director of the Design Institute for Health at the University of Texas at Austin's Dell Medical School.

"The opportunity in health and healthcare is really at the human level. We see healthcare and health systems at their core as a bunch of individual human beings, some who need care and some who want to provide care," said Mr. Chang. "The value exchange is a very human need, but the healthcare system has responded mostly to its financial incentives and less so to the human needs, at least over the last few decades."

He continued, "In a return to its roots — in the need to care for and the need that people have to be cared for — design plays a really important role in, first, reiterating or revealing those needs as they've evolved, and then creating new solutions to those needs in a way that the current system doesn't."

That's the central premise of human-centered design, a concept that has driven the design of much of modern society but which healthcare has been slow to adopt. "It's designing with a deep understanding of the intended user of a product or service and their needs, then taking those insights and that knowledge in hand to create something that's meaningful," said Doreen Lorenzo, assistant dean of UT Austin's School of Design and Creative Technologies.

The "Design in Health" program, which was announced in December, is already accepting applications and will commence in August. The degree is a joint offering of the Design Institute for Health and the design school, the latter of which is housed within UT Austin's College of Fine Arts.

Mr. Chang and Ms. Lorenzo said the program, which they believe to be the first of its kind in the world, was itself designed with a specific group of humans in mind.

"This was driven by the students," Ms. Lorenzo said. "Our medical students were very interested in design in health, and I think that's predicated on the work that Stacey and the team have been doing at the Design Institute for Health. When you're listening to students say, 'We want to do this' and 'This is what we think we can do' — for me, there's nothing more powerful than that."

Dell Medical School was already offering an "augmentation of the traditional clinical curriculum," by allowing medical students to earn degrees in related topics such as business, biomedical engineering and public health alongside their medical degrees, Mr. Chang said, but the students were increasingly interested in the work being done at the School of Design and Creative Technologies.

"We, in essence, got cajoled into it — not that we were at all unwilling," he explained. "They said, 'This feels like an interesting and viable skill set for us, if our role in the future really is to be creative physician-leaders. Would you be willing to teach design to us?'"

Thus, the Design Institute for Health was born. Over time, however, Mr. Chang and his team realized the demand for human-centered design in healthcare reached far beyond the clinical setting — organizations across the entire healthcare ecosystem are seeking leaders and team members equipped with the tools to revamp healthcare with the users in mind — resulting in the creation of the multidisciplinary degree.

That multidisciplinary approach may be just as remarkable as the subject matter of the program: "A hallmark of this program is the ability for students from the outside interested in health and healthcare to go to school with medical students," Ms. Lorenzo said. "We think that that's a really powerful mixture and that good things will come out of it."

Wherever in healthcare those "changemakers" end up, the goal of the program is to foster the creativity and out-of-the-box perspective necessary to solve the "really big, gnarly challenges" of the industry, Mr. Chang said.

"Part of the problem with the healthcare system is that we often just incrementally revise the things that already exist. That's part of the risk-averse nature of health and healthcare," he said. "We know that in order to actually make the big shifts that are necessary to address our needs, it's going to take a very different kind of courage, enabled by a very different kind of skill set, and hopefully, design is that."

That toolset will come through "project-based, experiential" instruction," Ms. Lorenzo explained, "equipping students with those tools and with the understanding of what it takes to get something like that accomplished and to give them the confidence to go out there and do it."

Without that practical element, "it's just theory," Mr. Chang added. "It's like if you hand someone a hammer and describe how it works — until they actually know how to wield that hammer, they're not actually capable of change."

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