How Healthcare Can Benefit from Good Design


Posted by Paloma Medina

Good design can create the foundation for health professionals to be on the same page.

In my previous post, I delved into the use of infographics and data visualizations in healthcare, with an emphasis on the patient as the audience. In this segment, we’ll explore how design can help get health professionals on the same page and on the road to productive collaboration.

Good design captures their attention: The first step in having health teams that hold common goals and strategy is to first get everyone on the same page about facts. Information dissemination for front-line workers and providers is a difficult task however because they are largely a mobile work force whose main roles keep them away from personal computer stations. More so than other professions, they are less likely to have the time to read through informational emails and text memos. Enter good design: A well-designed poster in the elevator, for example, trumps an email in two ways:

1. It brings the message to the place where they staff have time to absorb it

2. It captures staff’s attention and holds on to it just long enough to deliver the message

Smart design can thus engage the mind even when the message would otherwise be  less-than-exciting.

Good design rallies and inspires: Well-designed infographics, posters, etc. stimulate more than just one part of our brain. Within seconds, a great design can make us smile, enrage us, make us feel sadness and empathy, or just fill us with wonder and inspiration. By evoking emotions in us, the right visual language has the ability to motivate us towards action — action that could be anything from re-thinking our work flows to something as simple as reading an entire poster about medication side affects. This type of motivation and emotional engagement is what we need to get staff talking and caring about key health care issues.  Once staff are emotionally engaged, the hard work of creating shared visions, goals and game plans is, well, a little less hard.

Examples of good design with health professionals in mind:

The Unknown Killer
Another in a series from GE’s Healthymagination, this time in partnership with the creative agency JESS3.  A poster of this kind is a perfect platform from which to build buy-in around a performance improvement initiative. The design is instantly engaging — it’s use of color is lively and the design is clean. The effect is a poster that makes hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) interesting to read about – quite an accomplishment indeed! An improvement to this poster might be to have icons or imagery that highlight the comparison between HAI deaths and breast and prostate cancer deaths – a powerful fact that could use an equally powerful graphic besides a bar graph.

Fosamax: Just the Facts

An excellent example of how a poster can pack a wallop of information without overwhelming the senses – this “Just the Facts” poster is aimed at updating providers on new information on a medication (in this case, it was for a medication that was in pre-recall stages).

Why this poster works:

- The color palette is calming and simple: Blues and beiges are the only colors used — shading and text size are instead used to bring key items forward and move secondary information to the back

- Icons are used to build empathy: The usual text heavy, small-font list of side-effects in medication ads and pamphlets dehumanizes the effect that these symptoms have on patients’ lives. Providers are more likely to consider the implications of side effects on their individual patients when imagery is used. A great example of the power of images is the simple but emotive “Stomach pain” icon.

What’s Happening on a Night Shift?

Arm nurses and health professionals with information, follow it up with empowering quality improvement infrastructure, and you have a recipe for targeted performance improvement. This night shift infographic uses three-dimensional illustration to “walk” the viewer through the dangers on the night shift.  There are some flaws in the poster design — some numbers are confusing as to what they relate to and the flow chart could be much clearer. That said, this is still a great example of how we can turn data into a story by contextualizing the information into a place or scenario. This results in increased engagement, information comprehension and retention for the viewer.


Relating back to our work: What information-rich message do we have that needs to be conveyed to providers? Would investing in a few poster prototypes result in something that busy staff members would be more likely to feel engaged with? As a side benefit, could a well-designed poster add color and contribute to a better aesthetic in staff areas, rather than the posting of drab memos?

We do not need to hire a designer or firm to create great materials — we can move away from text-only communication to a design approach by simply learning from this field (or collaborating with it) and incorporating the successful elements of good design into in-house created pamphlets, posters, and web pages.

Next Up: In my next post, I’ll share some example of health infographics and data visualizations that target health policy makers and analysts as the key audience.

Paloma Medina is an MPA HPAM 2012 candidate with a specialization in organizational coaching and development. Her background is in homeless health care, community development and design.


Alleviating Our Value Deficit


Posted by Elaine Purcell

Fortunately, cutting healthcare costs is hardly a partisan issue. Especially during this time of economic downturn, policymakers and taxpayers alike are looking to cut costs anywhere they can. Regardless, where and by how much these expenses should be cut remains a major point of contention among policymakers across the political spectrum. Given the increasingly high costs associated with the healthcare system, it is not surprising that government healthcare programs have become low-hanging fruit for budget cuts—less than two years after the enactment of costly healthcare reform legislation.

Following the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services reported that the bill would increase total national health expenditures by more than $200 billion from 2010-2019. In a statement by the Congressional Budge Office (CBO) in May 2010, they stated: Rising health costs will put tremendous pressure on the federal budget during the next few decades and beyond. In CBO’s judgment, the health legislation enacted earlier this year does not substantially diminish that pressure.

ACA’s prospects of cutting costs may appear grim. In 2010 alone the United States spent$2.6 trillion on healthcare – over $8,000 per American. For more than 30 years now, healthcare costs have been growing at a rate 2% greater than the general economy. As an additional portion of the U.S. population gains insurance through expanded government healthcare programs, can we actually afford this new legislation?

A simple answer to this question is derived from basic financial principles: in order to achieve a return on an investment, one must actually make an investment. Nevertheless, the stakes are high and the nuances lie in how to not only achieve a return, but the greatest return from our $200 billion/year investment in the healthcare system.

To achieve the greatest return, we cannot only focus on reducing costs – we must strive to also improve quality. Ranked by the World Health Organization as the highest in costs but 37th in overall performance, the U.S. healthcare system is evidently experiencing a ‘value-deficit,’ which is truly at the crux of our nation’s healthcare problems.

One of the strongest themes pervasive throughout ACA is the generation of more information. More information on the top hospitals and the best doctors. More information on the medications that are most effective for treating certain conditions and patient populations. More information on how health plans’ benefit packages compare to others. According to basic market principles, additional and more accessible information will drive competition, which in turn, will force the suppliers of healthcare services to lower their costs and improve quality.

Regardless, in order to achieve greater competition, healthcare consumers must also change their behavior. They need to better understand their purchasing decisions. It’s ironic that with a commodity as priceless as good health, so many patients passively accept or deny treatments and services provided based on limited information. Patients must have the gumption to research their condition and choose providers or medication based on unbiased and comprehensible information.

Nevertheless, due to the nature of healthcare insurance, few patients are cognizant of healthcare costs. To alleviate this moral hazard, the financial burden must be extended to either the patient or the provider. ACA focuses primarily on the provider through carrot and stick approaches, such as pay-for-performance (P4P) programs, which reward physicians for providing the best care. Further, P4P penalizes physicians for over- providing care, thus making them more accountable for costs associated with the care they deliver.

To alleviate moral hazard on the patient side is more complicated and risky. Healthcare consumers are often more price elastic than one would predict, given that they currently lack the information and training to predict the consequences of foregoing certain preventive measures and early interventions. Nevertheless, applying co-payments on certain procedures and not others (such as mammograms) may encourage patients to be more wary of the amount and type of healthcare they consume.

Ultimately, the simplest equation for alleviating the value-deficit is this: costs divided by quality. Although this is undoubtedly more difficult to achieve than simple division, this basic equation should be the basis for solving the problems of our healthcare system.

Elaine Purcell is a second year graduate student in Wagner’s Health Policy and Management Program focusing on Healthcare Management and Administration. Prior to Wagner, she worked in Washington, DC analyzing healthcare policy during the passage of national healthcare reform.