Robert D. and Patricia E. Kern Institute for the Transformation of Medical Education

Design Thinking: Using empathy to be creative problem solvers

Design Thinking workshop; table view, Kern InstituteIt all began with the bang of a gong. Wearing shirts with the words “Empathy Matters” emblazoned across the chest, workshop facilitators from the Kern Institute for the Transformation of Medical Education at MCW and the UWM Lubar Entrepreneurship Center challenged more than 180 first-, second- and third-year medical students and first- and second-year pharmacy students to become Design Thinkers.

What is design thinking? Design thinking is a human-centered, solutions-based methodology that uses empathy to define problems and identify solutions focused on the needs of the people at the center of the situation. By teaching medical and pharmacy students the patient-centered design thinking process, we are equipping them with tools to be the best physicians and pharmacists they can be. Empathy is at the heart of design thinking.

“These 180 students left today with an invaluable creative problem-solving skillset that focuses on the importance of deeply understanding the needs and priorities of their patients,” explains Chris Decker, MD, director of the Culture & Systems Pillar and the Entrepreneurial Mindset/Design Thinking Program within the Kern Institute. Dr. Decker developed and leads the annual Kern Institute Transformational Ideas Initiative, which advances innovation ideas by students, faculty and staff throughout the MCW health system. He is a professor of emergency medicine and chief transformation officer of the Medical College Physicians, where he works with leaders at all levels to develop problem solving-skills and to think innovatively.

To immerse themselves in the design thinking mindset, workshop students began by doing drills in each of the five steps of design thinking (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test). These drills were in advance of an in-depth, interdisciplinary exercise where they were charged with using design thinking to identify a process improvement opportunity in caring for a critically-ill patient and then brainstorm possible solutions with the patient’s perspective as the guiding focus.

“Design thinking starts and ends with people – looking at challenges with empathy and a spirit of collaboration. It allows us to see a patient’s world, appreciate them as human beings, understand their feelings and communicate our understanding of their concerns,” says Cassie Ferguson, MD, director of the Student Pillar within the Kern Institute, director of the Quality Improvement and Patient Safety Scholarly Pathway (QuIPS) and associate professor of pediatrics (emergency medicine). By understanding the problem from the patient’s perspective, we can all begin to think in a way that consistently has patient needs in mind.”

All 180 students are enrolled in MCW’s QuIPS Pathway, which provides students with the core principles and skills necessary to understand and analyze the systems-based aspects of patient care, actively engage in quality improvement work, and enhance patient safety to provide the best possible health outcomes for patients. Design thinking is an essential component of this effort.

At the workshop, students had the opportunity to interview expert “consultants” to learn how care is delivered to critically-ill patients in an emergency. The consultants were health care providers from multiple disciplines related to emergency medicine, including emergency department physicians and pharmacists, EMS workers, nurses, resident physicians, and flight-for-life responders. Each consultant shared their experiences while students used empathic listening skills and asked open-ended questions to dig deeper into the real-life process of caring for the critically-ill in an emergency. This allowed possible process improvement opportunities to be uncovered by the student teams. After the interviews, known in design thinking as the discovery process, the student teams each defined one improvement opportunity, called a “how might we” statement, and brainstormed possible solutions. Each team then chose what they deemed as their best solution to prototype, which for this workshop meant sketching a storyboard of their process improvement. As the final step in the design thinking process, each team tested their prototype by acting out their storyboard in front of another team for feedback.

“Workshop participants learned how to ask effective questions, be excellent listeners, and draw informed conclusions from what they heard. They also came to understand the importance of checking their assumptions with their patients to be sure they got it right,” explains Dr. Decker. “Finally, they experienced how to creatively collaborate in finding solutions that the patient will find value in and actually follow through on.”

Design Thinking workshop; full room, Kern Institute

Members of MCW’s Kern Institute and the UWM Lubar Entrepreneurship Center have been collaborating for over a year to train leaders and students at both institutions in design thinking methodology. A team from both institutions studied design thinking at Stanford’s famous Hasso Plattner Institute of Design together last January, including Kern’s Chris Decker, MD, Cassie Ferguson, MD, and Julia Schmitt, and UWM’s Ilya Avdeev, PhD, Brian Thompson and Nathaniel Stern.

“We’re creating a powerful innovation community here in Milwaukee, partnering on projects, leveraging our collective talents and sharing ideas between MCW, UWM, Marquette, and many others,” said Julia Schmitt, Entrepreneurial Mindset/Design Thinking Program Facilitator and senior communications consultant within the Kern Institute. “Imagine all we will accomplish as a coalition of innovators who use phrases like “yes, and,” “what if,” and “why not?”

MCW’s Kern Institute is advancing a new foundation for medical education based on character, competence, and caring, and speeding that innovation through the application of design thinking principles and the tenants of the entrepreneurial mindset: curiosity, connections, and creating value. The UWM Lubar Entrepreneurship Center’s programming helps students, faculty, and staff nurture ideas, build confidence, and succeed as entrepreneurs, innovators, and drivers of change.