Monthly Archives: March 2015

SXSW Interactive: Can design change the way we think about healthcare delivery?

Can we use the creativity and rigors of the design process to change how we deliver health care?  After a week of SXSW Interactive, I’d say yes, it makes sense and certainly couldn’t hurt. After over a decade seeing two parents through the Kafka-esque twists and turns of the health care system, I consider the American approach to delivering medical (and elder-) care on par with Chinese water torture, only more expensive.

Pauline van Dongen's solar-paneled dress prompts us to re-examine why we wear clothing. Why not apply that same thinking to health care?

Pauline van Dongen’s solar-paneled dress prompts us to re-examine why we wear clothing. Why not apply that same thinking to health care?

Here in Austin, The University of Texas announced a radical-sounding partnership between the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas Dept. of Art called The Design Institute for Health. The newly-formed group, led by two veterans from IDEO, the design firm famous for its longstanding relationship with Apple, are part of a push to figure out how to deliver community-based health care funded based on the “value it creates.”  The medical school’s charismatic dean, Dr. Clay Johnston, is inviting hospitals, doctors, nonprofits and the community as a whole to help re-think what the farm animals in the movie “Babe called “the way things are.”  I can’t imagine many things more challenging, or exciting.

If you have any doubts about the mind-unleashing power of design, I refer you to Paola Antonelli’s SXSW keynote, “Curious Bridges: How Designers Grow the Future.”  Antonelli, the curator of architecture for the Museum of Modern Art, guides us through a series of examples of design that provokes us to re-think the “way things are.”  Examples include a belt that simulates menstruation (to, one presumes, produce empathy in the opposite sex) and wearable clothing made with 3D printers that simulates the body’s movement created by Pauline van Dongen, who wore a sweater made of flattened solar cells during her session later that day. Think about it, technology-based clothing that’s comfortable, practical and adaptable.

Design was the subtext of a fascinating but sparsely-attended talk by Eric Topol’s called “Democratizing Health Care.” Here is a doctor, researcher and (I have to assume) AMA member, who understands that people want healthcare to be simple, affordable and effective. After opening his talk by citing medication errors as the fourth cause of death in the United States, Topol showed a portfolio of on-demand tools — a wrist band to detect seizures, an app to measure arrhythmia, or using a smartphone to digitize the heart — technology moving at the pace of Moore’s Law to troubleshoot, coordinate and identify illness — without causing the patient to go broke or die.  I don’t think any of the devices Dr. Topol showed were ready for prime time, but they they — or improved versions — will be, and they will advance the revolution.

Why not?  If we can cast off stilettos and create sympathy for PMS, why not re-think health care as a human service for real people?

Appreciate the process

I am firmly convinced there are no straight lines. The goal may be clear – a speech, successful meeting, signed contract — but the path rarely maps with the project plan. A colleague once told me she kept on course by reminding herself to enjoy the process.  These days, I try hard to apply that formula to both my work and my life.

There are no straight lines in life or in work. (Photo courtesy of pimpmycom.com)

There are no straight lines in life or in work. (Photo courtesy of pimpmycom.com)

A friend whose long career includes a Fulbright at age 67, assignments on four continents, a tenured professorship and a close network of fascinating friends told me recently that he realizes now that he was just “stumbling along,” working hard, yes, but seizing opportunities and accepting setbacks as they appeared.

Another term for “stumbling along” might be innovation. A client of mine sells small-batch Irish whiskey, and as I listened to one of his distillers talk about merging technology (containers, process) with the centuries-old tradition of whiskey making, I thought, “no straight lines, ” rather a series of trials with error and the occasional stellar success. How many times have we heard the homily: many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.

As much as I think I would like a “happily ever after” plot line, admittedly, it’s been the bumps in the road that have taught me the most and made the trip interesting.  I certainly didn’t plan to take a career hiatus in my 50’s to care for my parents, but I did, dialing back my professional activities and focusing on managing their finances, medical care and stops at more “care continuums” than I care to count.  It didn’t make me rich, but it gave me a sense of compassion that I never would have gained in the corporate world.

Remembering this, I remind myself not to panic if the plane is cancelled or a stray dog appears on the doorstep just as the project is due. It’ll be okay; there are no straight lines.