Private dinner and debate - Design and healthcare: Getting the balance right

Thursday, December 6, 2012

De Santis, Old Street, London

Healthcare is an emotive issue. It consumes vast amounts of resources, and is crying out for new ideas that can improve access, services and treatments—especially given the demands of an ever-changing population. So: should design set about bringing advances in areas such as telehealth, the administration and packaging of drugs, and in the revival of R&D?

Or is design’s role better suited to highlighting ‘softer’, patient-centered issues, such as improving patient care, dignity and wellbeing, and providing patients with a greater say about how they are treated? Perhaps design should both help people more easily manage their health, and, through new advances in clinical innovation, also bring them greater freedom over their lives – not least, the freedom to stop worrying about their health.

These questions matter, if only because the healthcare issue is coloured by many competing agendas. For example: life expectancies continue to rise, along with survival rates for serious injury, illnesses and cancer. Despite this, however, many argue that people must take more responsibility for their own health, just as governments should promote healthy lifestyle choices—whether we ask for these or not. So while design can bring about genuine improvements, it also risks being accused of engaging in a divisive kind of health politics.

Is every problem in health always one for a designer to solve? Should design encourage innovation in clinical technology and pharmaceuticals, even if, in the short term, that means leaving immediate patient needs unmet? Or should it look beyond the needs of patients, and think also about improving the clinician’s tools and techniques? Perhaps design should promote prevention and ‘nudge’ people toward the ‘right choices’. But in that case, while it might appear to lower the cost of treating lifestyle issues such as obesity, smoking and drinking, design might also unwittingly help segregate healthcare, and hasten a situation in which only the healthy get treated.

What then should be the precise role of design in healthcare?


Dr Mike Fitzpatrick, general practitioner, writer on health
Kit Lewis, director, Space Around People
Nathan Waterhouse, co-lead of OpenIDEO
Martyn Perks, manifesto convenor, speaker and writer on design
Peter MillsStrategic planning director at The Team

Chaired by Jason Mesut, head of user experience at RMA consulting