The Intersection of Medicine and Design

With the release of the Apple Watch this week for public purchase, we are now seeing the implementation of wearables that have the ability to pick up potentially clinically applicable data from the user. Google’s Fit and Apple’s HealthKit are further blurring the lines of performance tracking and relevant health information. All the while, the packaging is slick with clean interfaces and cutting edge hardware integration.

More than ever, design is playing a big role in medicine and health care. In everything from medical device designs, where the end user is the physician, on through publicly accessible technology such as the Apple Watch, design clearly matters. A significant amount of effort (and funding) is going towards ergonomics, form, interactivity and ease of use. Companies such as IDEO have been working in this space for decades with their innovative methodology regarding human-centric design, and even the upcoming Dell School of Medicine in Austin recently announced the collaborative creation of the Design Institute for Health (helmed by IDEO alums Stacey Chang and Beto Lopez) where the focus will be design thinking and creative solutions in the health care field.

This past week while working with other surgeons performing laparoscopic colon resections, I was struck by the sharp contrast of decades-old instrument designs and the recent device additions to the operating room. Coviden’s Ligasure energy device we use now is distinctly ergonomic, intuitive and a well thought out blend of form and function. Down to the UI of the power source LCD screen, and even the audible tones to indicate stage of cauterization, it’s a device that is a great example of how device companies have a major focus on ease of use and aesthetics. In contrast, we are still using stainless steel forceps and needle drivers who have correct methods and techniques of holding and using that are not immediately obvious.

The field of medicine and especially the field of surgery is one of legacy and history. Instruments and procedures are named after pioneering individuals whose names are always spoken in a reverent tone. As such, these instruments shouldn’t be immediately rendered obsolete as they are a critical and fundamental part of the surgeon’s armamentarium, but perhaps there is a way to improve upon them.

Aesthetics, design, UI/UX are factoring heavily into products in every field and medicine is no exception. If anything, it is now a requirement. Cumbersome, overly complex or clunky designs are no longer acceptable in new products entering the market.

When I design my devices for the OR, ease of use and intuitive-ness are high on the list of importance. With more recent studies on the IDEO methodology and through conversations with the wonderful individuals at IDEO, I feel that they have helped me refine this process and approach in an intangible, but fundamental way. Once the intended function of the device is established, build it so that form IS function has become the goal. This is where human-factors engineering comes in to play, as designing with the end-user in mind and thinking about when and where the device will be used is what will ensure its (hopefully) ultimate success in implementation.

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