Image by Jacob Dwyer

Dear Medical Designer

Should I give up medicine to do design?

I periodically receive emails from individuals interested in pursing opportunities in healthcare and design. I figured it would be easier to publish excepts of my response:

Email from student E:

Dear Dr. Lee:

I’m reaching my last year at Stanford and I’ve run into an issue: I can understand why physicians should have design thinking as a tool. But when I think about the schooling and training to be a doctor I can’t help but imagine my creativity being crushed by endless memorizing and “this is exactly how you do this” kind of thinking.

This may not be the best form to ask in, and I’m not sure if you have time to answer it, but I’d appreciate your thoughts on how you’ve managed to merge design and medicine. I’d also like to know if you’ve had any issues remotely similar to medicine and design thinking clashing or not being a “thing”.

I gave up medicine for design, and I want to know if I even needed to make that choice.

All my best,

My Response to E

I don’t think there is a right answer. It’s so new that it probably depends on what you want to do in your day to day. There aren’t many designers in healthcare and many people don’t even know what design is unless you are at a really progressive healthcare delivery system like a Kaiser or a Mayo.

I think in my institution since they don’t know what design is, I am better off being a doctor who practices design as designers wouldn’t even be able to set their foot in the door (they would never know to hire one!), I can be a “peer” or “one of them” that can hopefully help convince them of the ROI. But that’s inside a healthcare delivery system. If you were doing design in other venues like a healthcare company or design firm then you would hold credibility from your work experience like a Dennis Boyle from IDEO etc.

It seems like there are interesting new developments, like the new Dell Med school which seems to have an emphasis on design and or Kaiser’s new medical school could also be interesting as a more progressive experience.

I do think that there is a lot about medical school that is a pain; but it does gain you credentials, a deeper understanding of the “mindset” of medicine, and continuous exposure to users. Being immersed in that is very instructive from an ethnographic point of view. I only have clinic a few times a month. I savor those times because I always learn new things.

I came late to this; I was already tenured when I discovered all this. So I have integrated design into my day to day (research, teaching, clinical/QI improvement). But that doesn’t make it easy, because you have to find ways to get support to do these activities. I do it through grants, my professorship, etc.

Design in business is becoming the norm. It’s way earlier in the healthcare space, so there is much more to work out when doing the combo of design and health.

One last thing, I do think systems design is important for design and in particular learning health systems. When you are trying to move outcomes and move multiple levers like policies, recalcitrant medical professionals, patients, it does sometimes help to have the clinical perspective and authority to guide the design and development of clinical medicine as well as patient experience.

Not sure if that helps.

Would love to know your reactions.


Response from student:

Hi Joyce,

I cracked up and was almost relieved to read “most of it [healthcare] has been designed poorly.” Because I believe it’s also true. There is so much to be fixed.

To make sure I get this correct, being a physician may be necessary in order to have a heavy say in how the system of what you’re designing will work? That kind of thinking is why I originally wanted to do both design and medicine — to have the background and knowledge in order to understand the ins and outs better. Also, continuous exposure to users — that’s such a great point. In school it’s so difficult for us to connect to users.

Yes, design and business are becoming mainstream. I didn’t think about design and medicine being more in the infant stages. I guess at Stanford design thinking leeches into many aspects of learning life. I’m curious, what do you think about the med school education in the first place? I know researchers have looked at how medical students at Stanford learn imaging is so much more convoluted and difficult than a much improved, intuitive re-designed technique others could read. Yet, since the students learned the difficult method, that is what they were good at. I wonder if it’s like that for other aspects of the med school curriculum (or residency or beyond)? And I wonder if there are better ways to do everything, yet because medicine is so entrenched in how things are it cannot catch on sometimes.

I’m very glad to hear there are institutions that are beginning to have more of the less-traditional thinking in their curriculum. I need to look more into that.

My best,

I tweet and blog about design, healthcare, and innovation as “Doctor as Designer”. Follow me on Twitter and sign up for my newsletter!

Other Dear Medical Designer posts:

Click here for information about creative commons licensing. Disclosures: Unitio, Grant funding from Lenovo.