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Designing Better Systems: Dell Med Students Partner on Real-World Health Challenges

Nov. 18, 2021

A designer, a medical student and a business executive all walk into a room. Their goal? Use person-centered design — combined with their own unique skillsets — to solve critical health issues at the local and national scale.

This interdisciplinary mix represents the diverse cohort of the Master of Arts in Design focused on Health program at The University of Texas at Austin. The first-of-its-kind program was born from a partnership between Dell Medical School’s Design Institute for Health and the College of Fine Art’s School of Design and Creative Technologies. Students learn design methodologies and gain health-focused knowledge, then put their skills to the test through a semester-long design project at the intersection of design and health — the capstone studio — for a health system partner or organization.

Diana Siebenaler, director of partnerships and network strategy design for the Design Institute for Health, says the studio projects within the program cultivate long-term, mutually beneficial partnerships between students and local or national organizations.

“Studio projects vary greatly: Some focus on holistic community health, while others are focused on a single disease in one population,” Siebenaler says. “Our goal is to develop learners who are renaissance people, equipped to look at any problem, ask the right questions, and employ a designer’s toolkit to reimagine health and health care.”

Supporting Deaf Students’ Health Needs

What happens when a deaf or hard-of-hearing person’s physician doesn’t sign, and no interpreter is available? And how easily can a deaf student schedule a health services visit over the phone? When design students partnered with Gallaudet University, their mission was to redesign the health services system to better meet the needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing high school and college students.

Through 30 interviews conducted with the involvement of interpreters, the team learned about students’ attitudes toward health services, campus geography and even the health ecosystem in the greater Washington, D.C., area.

“We got to dive deeper into the patient’s experience than we normally would have as medical students in a normal clinical workday,” says Julia Taylor, now a fourth-year medical student.

Interdisciplinary student teams used design design strategies to assist partner organizations with health system challenges as their capstone project for the Master of Arts in Design focused on Health program.

At the core of the project was fostering connection between two services on campus: the peer wellness program and the campus health clinic. The team’s first recommendation was creating a partnership to harness the trust of the peer wellness program with the clinical expertise of the health center. The team also recommended creating dedicated mental health spaces for high schoolers attending the Model Secondary School for the Deaf on Gallaudet’s campus to prevent strains on clinic resources.

“Probably the most exciting design solution was developing a framework for an app so students could schedule their own appointments,” Taylor said. “We also laid the groundwork to create an interlocking telehealth system with signing providers in the D.C. area.”

Gallaudet leadership picked up all three strategies: The two health programs are planning a joint blood drive, rooms at the high school are being set aside for mental health spaces and leaders are planning on passing on the app framework to partners from Apple. Christopher Moreland, M.D., associate professor in Dell Med’s Department of Internal Medicine, served as an advisor for the design team as a member of the deaf community currently practicing medicine; he notes the lens shift required to implement effective strategies for patient and provider alike.

“People often think of accommodations, such as interpreters, as existing for those who are deaf or hard of hearing,” Moreland says. “This disability framing depends on context. Professional interpreters facilitate communication among everyone in the room. As a resident, when I signed with a deaf patient and her children, my non-signing attending physician remarked afterwards that he was in the linguistic minority.”

Taylor adds: “It really hit home for me that as physicians, we need to rise to the occasion and meet people where they are. How can we rebuild health systems to meet the needs of our patients?”

Taking Families’ Needs to Heart

When children with heart defects undergo surgery, families must often make a difficult transition from having a dedicated post-surgery hospital team to managing their child’s complex health needs at home. Fourth-year medical students Madeline Hanes and Bonnie Du were on a design team that partnered with the Texas Center for Pediatric and Congenital Heart Disease, a partnership between UT Health Austin (the clinical practice of Dell Med) and Dell Children’s Medical Center, to improve the discharge process for families of patients with single-ventricle congenital heart disease through a project called Corage.

“Nearly one in every 100 babies is born with a congenital heart defect, and a quarter of those defects are very serious, requiring several surgeries and long-term care,” Hanes says.

The Corage team conducted over 20 interviews with clinical care staff, ranging from doctors to social workers to dieticians, as well as five patient families. From there, the team used design principles to glean key insights. Du and Hanes provided technical know-how, while their teammates provided a big-picture perspective and design expertise.

“We conducted what’s called an artifact analysis of the hospital and clinic environments,” Du says. “We took pictures of the physician binders or patient whiteboards and drew insights from them, eventually arriving at a need for patient guideposts during the discharge process.”

After analyzing options with providers and patients, the team arrived at their design solution: a customizable discharge workbook for parents. They saw strong positive reactions after getting it in the hands of families, and will continue refining the resource as it evolves.

“Having a child with congenital heart disease is very challenging for families,” says Carlos Mery, M.D., MPH, professor at Dell Med and chief of pediatric and congenital cardiothoracic surgery. “The family workbook that the design team created has had a huge impact on our families by decreasing anxiety, engaging them throughout the hospital stay and helping transition home. Our families love it.”

A Helping Hand in an Urban Food Desert

A stark reality for many individuals and families involves prioritizing daily needs — for example, choosing to purchase either insulin or groceries during a given month. Zaara Qasim, now a fourth-year student at Dell Med, was a part of a team that used human-centered design to tackle these types of impossible situations.

Powered by Equidad ATX, an Austin organization that supports communities east of I-35, Live Well/Vive Bien is a project that seeks to eliminate barriers to health equity in Austin’s Eastern Crescent, an area acutely affected by a 1920s master plan which created a legacy of racial and financial segregation in the city.

“There are lower life expectancies, higher rates of food insecurity and less access to needed care in the Eastern Crescent,” Qasim says. “Our team was brought on to be a part of Equidad ATX’s larger work with this critical problem.”

Qasim and four other design students were tasked with adding to the ecosystem of local health services with a mobile grocery store to address food insecurity. In order to truly understand community needs, the team conducted 70 hours of interviews with community members and leaders.

“Our biggest insight was understanding the community’s sense of distrust of large organizations,” Qasim said. “We spent time building trust and empathy. Our message was: ‘We’re here to stay. We care what you think.’”

From there, the team went through a cycle of testing mobile store prototypes and getting stakeholder feedback. The five students also furthered partnerships between Equidad ATX and local farms like Urban Roots and Farmshare to create a diverse pipeline of supplies. At the end of the spring semester, the students presented their final prototype to Equidad ATX. Now, a retrofitted Capital Metro bus-turned-grocery-store is launching in the Eastern Crescent.

“Physicians have immense power to make meaningful change in patients’ lives,” Qasim said. “This project legitimized my passion for health outside of the home. I strive to be a physician who champions preventative health care measures.”

Tamie Glass, faculty director and associate professor in the School of Design and Creative Technologies, summarizes the newly launched program:

“As evidenced in all three of these projects, a defining quality of the MA in Design focused on Health program is that it prepares graduates to tackle wicked problems by sending them into the world knowledgeable about the health care industry and poised to deploy a designer’s mindset,” Glass says. “Furthermore, their education in our program enables them to work across disciplines, which is what it will take to truly transform the future of health and health care.”