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How to apply design thinking in healthcare settings

Last updated

12 October 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

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Design thinking is a type of creative problem-solving. 

It’s a valuable methodology for various fields, from architecture to software development. And though broadly applicable, design thinking impacts one particular industry essential to all of us: healthcare.

Lately, growing evidence suggests that skillful application of design principles in healthcare settings will help personnel experience less chronic stress, deliver better care, and potentially improve patient outcomes.

Researchers are still investigating which design tactics lead to the best patient journey and the least stress for healthcare workers. But in the meantime, many reasons exist for applying human-centered design to transform healthcare today. Let’s dive into them.

What is human-centered design?

Human-centered design is an approach that prioritizes the target audience, often called the user or, in healthcare settings, the patient. 

It hinges on deep understanding and empathy for the patient's issues and, crucially, the creation of effective solutions. Guided by extensive research, human-centered design aims to meet users' needs or resolve their issues before problems become apparent.

For example, before the iPhone, most smartphones featured physical keyboards, a familiar user norm. However, Apple envisioned a better, more intuitive user experience. They designed the iPhone with a full touchscreen interface, eliminating needing a physical keyboard. Users might not have explicitly identified physical keyboards as problematic then, but Apple's design team foresaw issues like limited screen space, complex navigation, and a not-so-minimalist design.

Another classic case is Oral-B's best-selling kid's toothbrush. Through user research and design thinking, they observed how children gripped their toothbrushes with their fists, not fingers. This insight led to a wide-handled toothbrush just right for a child's developing motor skills.

Consider HelloFresh, a popular food delivery company addressing the time-consuming nature of meal planning and prep. They conveniently deliver carefully portioned groceries to people's doors, solving this problem.

And human-centered design isn't just about convenience or aesthetics; it's also about improving quality of life. That’s where design thinking and healthcare intersect.

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Why does healthcare need design thinking?

Integrating design thinking into healthcare is a pressing issue.

According to a recent Harris Poll survey conducted in 2023, encompassing the responses of 2,500 U.S. adults, healthcare management is a source of immense stress and frustration for a significant portion of the population. 65% of U.S. adults feel managing healthcare is “overwhelming” and “time-consuming.”

The same survey revealed that the average person spent the monthly equivalent of an eight-hour workday coordinating healthcare for themselves and their family or loved ones. This inordinate amount of time and effort expended on healthcare coordination underscores the need for a more efficient and user-friendly approach.

Moreover, suboptimal healthcare design leads to various negative consequences, extending beyond the general public to affect those delivering healthcare services. Healthcare professionals, including physicians, nurses, and administrators, grapple with the strain of their already demanding roles, often compounded by outdated and inefficient workspaces or technology.

In light of these challenges, applying design thinking in healthcare is not just a luxury but a necessity. With its characteristic emphasis on innovation and a human-centered approach, design thinking offers the potential to revolutionize the healthcare experience for all stakeholders. 

By putting the patient at the center of the healthcare journey and streamlining processes, design thinking can make the experience more uplifting, efficient, and safer.

What are the elements of design thinking in healthcare?

Design thinking in healthcare is an iterative and user-centered approach that aims to create patient-focused, efficient, and innovative solutions for complex healthcare problems. It encourages a holistic understanding of the healthcare ecosystem and promotes continuous improvement

Crucial components of design thinking in healthcare include

  • Ideatingbrainstorming, generating a wide range of creative solutions to the defined problem, and encouraging diverse perspectives and ideas from multidisciplinary teams.

  • Prototyping—developing low-fidelity and high-fidelity prototypes or mock-ups of potential solutions (prototypes can be physical models, digital simulations, or process diagrams, allowing testing and feedback).

  • Testing—testing the prototypes with real users, such as patients and healthcare providers, including collecting feedback and data to evaluate the effectiveness and usability of the proposed solutions.

  • Iterating—repeating the design process as needed, refining and improving the solutions based on the feedback and insights gathered during testing. Continuous refinement is a key aspect of design thinking.

  • Implementing—taking the successful solution through the implementation process in a real world setting (this may involve changes to workflows, systems, or services.

  • Evaluate—continuously monitor the impact of the implemented solution. Collecting data to assess whether the solution is achieving its intended goals and making adjustments as necessary.

  • Collaborating—promoting collaboration and teamwork among various stakeholders, including healthcare professionals, designers, patients, and administrators. A multidisciplinary approach ensures a comprehensive understanding of the problem and diverse perspectives on the solutions.

  • Focusing on the human-centric—paying attention to the human experience and needs, ensuring that healthcare solutions are patient-centric and improve the overall care experience.

  • Creative problem-solving—encouraging innovative thinking to address healthcare challenges and generate unique solutions.

How does design impact health?

In a comprehensive literature review conducted in 2022, which explored the interplay between healthcare facility design and the mental well-being of healthcare professionals, it was evident that design holds the promise of mitigating burnout, alleviating stress, and decreasing the occurrence of errors.

Specifically, enhancing facility design is attainable by incorporating elements such as abundant natural light, serene views of nature, and the provision of ergonomic furniture, all contributing to a more functional and nurturing healthcare environment.

While it's important to acknowledge that exceptional design may not be able to cure disease outright, its tangible impact is undeniable. 

By creating not only easy-to-navigate but also aesthetically pleasing spaces, healthcare facility design plays a pivotal role in making the patient experience more positive and compassionate. It fosters an environment where patients feel supported and cared for, contributing to their well-being and recovery.

Ways technology facilitates human-centered design 

Design is just as crucial to care delivery as it is to the physical qualities of the healthcare facility. The usability of digital tools impacts the patient journey significantly, for better or worse.

Booking appointments:

  • User-friendly scheduling software and reminders benefit providers and patients.

  • These tools make appointment booking easy, ensure continuity of care, reduce stress, and cut down on missed appointments and fees.

Telemedicine services:

  • A 2022 study found that 77% of patients prefer online appointments.

  • Accessibility is vital for all patients, including those with limited tech skills and mobility.

  • Services like Teladoc and Amwell offer 24/7 non-urgent medical care, often covered by insurance.

Patient wayfinding:

  • Digital tools, color coding, and clear signage help guide patients seamlessly through complex medical settings with minimal stress.

Stress reduction:


  • Technology aids flexible scheduling with solutions like QGenda and TigerConnect, ensuring HIPAA compliance.

  • AI and machine learning can prevent staffing shortages and reduce wait lists by bringing more efficiency to scheduling

Multilingual support:

  • Technology can facilitate multilingual support in signage, apps, and directions, accommodating the diverse patient population often found in hospitals.

Benefits of applying human-centered design in healthcare

Enhancing patient experience:

Human-centered design ensures a seamless patient journey, from appointment scheduling to waiting room comfort. Clear, empathetic design reduces stress, fostering positive interactions.

Increasing appointment attendance:

Patient-friendly systems encourage timely appointments, preventing delays in treatment due to stressful experiences.

Improving performance and efficiency:

Streamlined designs empower healthcare professionals, reducing administrative burdens and ensuring ample time for patient care. Efficient communication and accessibility are paramount.

Enhancing diagnostic ability:

Well-designed tools aid clinicians in accurate diagnosis and treatment, ultimately improving patient outcomes.

Consolidated patient records:

Centralized, accessible patient data minimizes errors, enhances treatment efficiency, and enables proactive healthcare approaches.

Reducing healthcare errors:

Advanced technology and careful AI integration strengthen safety measures, reducing medical errors and their associated harm.

Telemedicine tools:

User-friendly telemedicine platforms enable efficient remote care, benefiting patients with mobility, mental health, or transportation constraints.

Fostering effective communication:

Human-centered design supports seamless communication among patients, doctors, and administrators, which is vital for quality healthcare delivery. Standardized APIs and clear PHI-sharing processes facilitate data exchange, supporting patient control over health data and collaborative healthcare practices.

Telemedicine tools:

User-friendly telemedicine platforms enable efficient remote care, benefiting patients with mobility, mental health, or transportation constraints.

Blending human-centered design with tech changes the healthcare game. It improves patient experiences, helps doctors get diagnoses spot on, reduces errors, and boosts teamwork and communication among healthcare workers.


Healthcare is a vital sector at the center of everyone’s lives. Patients and healthcare workers deserve a better experience. Doctors shouldn’t have to deal with clunky, outdated tech. And patients shouldn’t have to worry about medical errors.  

That’s where design thinking and UX come in. Healthcare can receive the same human-centered design as other industries, ensuring patient safety and the best outcomes. 

Technological advances bring exciting possibilities to healthcare, and working with a HIPAA-ready AI company like Dovetail can endlessly enhance the patient experience.

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