Design thinking: 5 steps to revamp the hospital experience

With their dreary corridors, impersonal rooms and chemical odors, hospitals often evoke powerful sensations of discomfort and anxiety among patients and visitors. However, the transformation of one hospital, driven by design thinking, shows that with a little creativity, hospitals can be comfortable, welcoming places, according to a case study in the Harvard Business Review.

Using design thinking and principles and supported by external designers, the leaders of Rotterdam Eye Hospital in The Netherlands transformed the facility from a dismal, typical looking hospital to a bright and comforting place. Since its renovation, a process that spanned 10 years, the hospital has won a number of safety, quality and design awards, and its patient intake has increased 47 percent, according to the report.

Leaders of Rotterdam Eye Hospital used the following five principles of design thinking in the facility's redesign, according to Harvard Business Review.

1. Start with patient-first thinking. The first step in a design-thinking process is understanding the end-user's experience. To gain this insight, the hospital's CEO, CFO, managers, staff and physicians sought to understand how patients felt when they first entered the hospital. They learned most patients were afraid of going blind. As a result, Rotterdam Eye Hospital leaders' goal became reducing patients' fears.

2. Borrow best practices from outside industries. Next, hospital leaders looked inside and outside the healthcare industry for ideas on how to improve its customer service. For example, they borrowed just-in-time scheduling practices from Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn and KLM, the Netherlands' flagship airline, according to the report. They also gleaned ideas on improving operations from two eye hospitals founded by Rotterdam Eye Hospital, the World Association of Eye Hospitals and the European Association of Eye Hospitals.

3. Put ideas into action. From there, teams of caregivers at the hospital began designing experiments based on concepts delivered by the Rotterdam Eye Hospital innovation hunters. These small-scale experiments, which were somewhat informal, supported the gradual adoption of new ideas. If one group found success in a particular idea, other groups would try it too.

4. Make physical structures reflect the goal. Architectural and interior design changes also intended to remedy patients' fears. For example, the children's department was renovated to make it less scary and more fun with new features, such as stepping stones at service counters.

5. Learn from failure. Not all of the hospital leaders' ideas worked. For instance, the idea to pick up patients from their homes in a taxi didn't help reduce their fear. When they realized a pilot wasn't catching on, the planners would analyze the experiment and try to deduce why not.

Design thinking has yielded a number of positive effects for Rotterdam Eye Hospital, according to the report. For instance, patients' recovery time is shorter and they have indicated they have a more positive experience — the hospital scores 8.6 out of 10 on its customer satisfaction surveys. Hospital staff said they are also happier.

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