Design thinking improves patient experiences at Mayo Clinic

August 19, 2015 The Architech Team

There’s no area of human experience that can benefit more from design thinking than the healthcare system. There. We said it. It’s a bold statement underscored by the fact that without one’s physical and mental health intact, everything else is mere decoration.

The Mayo Clinic has taken this belief and run a marathon with it. The Rochester, Minnesota-based organization is the largest integrated non-profit medical group practice on the planet and holds enormous sway over the standards adhered to by medical professionals worldwide. That’s why they’ve invested serious resources into their Center for Innovation (CFI), a space on the 16th floor of Mayo HQ that’s dedicated, in part, to discovering the best ways to implement design thinking practices toward the future of healthcare delivery services.

At the CFI’s Design Research Studio, high-level researchers and designers are busy visualizing, modeling, and eventually prototyping how doctors and patients will interact in ways that will make our current models seem archaic. One of their more successful rollouts has been the complete redesign of the traditional examination room.

Back in 2005, the CFI team recognized that the old examination rooms – with their stark interiors and shelves full of sharp, intimidating medical tools – were hardly the most conducive places to hold complex, sensitive doctor-patient conversations. And despite the modernization of hospitals, exam rooms have remained one of the few holdouts, resisting any fundamental design change for almost a century.

But the need went far beyond aesthetics. Observational research conducted by Mayo reveals only 10-15 per cent of the average doctor-patient visit is spent on physical examination; the remaining 85-90 per cent is spent in conversation.

There’s a vital function for the rooms, of course: Doctors need tools to examine their ailing patients. But most examinations don’t require the entire arsenal of scopes, probes, or even a hand-washing sink, and most conversations would do better without a row of scalpels poking in one’s peripheral view.

The fact is, experience plays a key role in how a person processes information. Doctors have noted that most patients only remember one or two key concepts after a dialogue, perhaps less if it’s a shocking diagnosis. The CFI team wondered if there was a more comfortable place patients could sit with their doctor to discuss results and better process the information coming at them. Perhaps even a place where family could join if that’s what the patient needed to feel more at ease.

Mayo Clinic design thinking

The Mayo researchers spent 30 days building out a prototype of a new space. They experimented with a relatively new architectural model called the Jack and Jill, a design that connects a main room to suite of adjoining rooms that are each accessible through a door. It made sense to place two private consulting rooms like bookends on either side of a larger examination room, keeping the spaces close but separate. In the consulting rooms offside, they created a modern, devoted space with nothing more than a computer, table, and chairs.

While that sounds like a simple enough set-up, the level of detail CFI impressed into the final result would surprise the average patient. The design team played around with everything from different seating positions to space ratios around the table, and the placement of furniture changed more than hospital linens. In the prototype they eventually set up in the CFI lab, a carousel of additions and subtractions came in and out the door. Finally, they brought in doctors, nurses, and patients to test out the new digs.

The end result looked something like a “mash-up between your kitchen table and your physician’s office,” says Maggie Breslin, CFI designer and researcher in a clinic video spot introducing the rooms.

As a nod to the traditional examination room joining the modern era, the designers added solar-powered faucets and light fixtures attached to a sensor that turn off when there’s no one present. The first rooms launched at the Mayo Clinic in the fall of 2011. Enthusiastic participants continued to add their feedback for refinement and improvement that smacks of pure 21st century innovation. “It’s been wildly successful,” Ms. Breslin summarizes. “We’ve [even] changed the lighting so it’s softer lighting, [and] rather than a tile floor it’s carpet.”

With physician workspaces optimized for both examination and dialogue, the CFI turned its sights to a series of other groundbreaking projects. You can check out some of their highlights on the Mayo Clinic website.

If you’re interested in learning more or integrating these design thinking principles into your own business, clinic, or organization, we’d love to hear from you!


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