Pirate scanner. Photo credit. Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital.jpg

Great design lessens testing fears

Photo Credit: NewYork Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital

Getting an MRI can be a scary and unnerving experience for a patient. In my experience, I have probably seen over a dozen MRI scanning rooms, all practically identical in design. White walls, standard office space ceiling tiles, harsh lighting, and a large and ominous donut-shaped machine looming in the center of the room.

During an MRI scan, a patient is dressed in a gown and expected to lie vertically on a platform inside the narrow bore of the machine, alone, while the technician observes safely from another room.  The patient is maneuvered in and out of the bore for 20 to 30 minutes as the machine loudly whistles, hums, and creates all sorts of suspicious sounds. For adults the entire process can be quite daunting. For children, it’s terrifying. 

In fact, receiving an MRI scan is so frightening for children that over 80 percent have to be sedated in order to get a good image. 

But what if the design were different?  At the Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital in New York, a potentially terrifying experience has been entirely transformed. The MRI machine was outfitted to resemble a pirate ship. The walls were painted to depict pirate scenes. A pirate outfit replaced the standard patient gown. Now, pirate accessories are given to patients’ parents. Even the MRI technician wears a pirate outfit! And to complete the experience, the room is infused with the scent of pina colada. 

By making these changes, the hospital reduced the need for sedation from 80 percent to less than one percent, saving a tremendous amount of money and creating a lot of happy parents and children.  

Another great design example is PillPack. When you go to your local pharmacy, chances are your medication comes in orange translucent bottles with white caps that are nearly indistinguishable from one another. 

This may work well for people with great vision taking few medications, but for most elderly patients—who have a hard time seeing and who are taking multiple pharmaceuticals—managing complex medication schedules can be an arduous task. It is no wonder that medication adherence tends to hover somewhere around the vicinity of 50 percent, resulting in up to $290 billion each year in excess healthcare costs! 
PillPak addresses this challenge by packaging all of the various medications a patient is taking at a given time into a single packet. The hour the pills are to be taken and the contents are clearly labeled in large print. One study suggests that these changes to the way pills are packaged can result in over 50 percent improvement (61.2 percent to 96.9 percent) in medication adherence. 

These examples show that Great Design can provide not only a better experience to patients, but lower costs and better clinical outcomes as well.
In healthcare, we do an excellent job providing world-class diagnoses and treatments, but other engagement points like booking an appointment, paying for treatment, and managing chronic conditions (the list could go on and on) leave much to be desired.  The result is poor compliance with treatments and medications, delayed onset of treatments, higher costs, and unhappy patients. These challenges, which collectively result in billions of dollars in costs each year, can all be alleviated in some way or another through Great Design.

So what do I consider to be great design?

I came up with these three principles. When they are met, the organizations that achieve them establish tremendous advantage over competitors by raising the standard for how products and services should be experienced. 

Great design is….

1) Innovative, not imitative. It differs from what is currently available. Simply imitating the competition may keep you in the game, but it doesn't give you an advantage.  

2) Respectful. It respects the desires of users. It takes every action possible to minimize the amount of work, confusion, inconvenience, and negative emotion the patient is required to experience. Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital did this wonderfully by turning a frightening MRI experience into an entertaining pirate ship adventure.

3) Holistic and thorough down to the last detail. It does not focus on a single engagement point with the user (patient), but on the entire experience. Had the MRI machine simply been painted to look like a pirate ship, if the technician had not dressed up as a pirate and played along, if the room had not smelled of pina colada, the experience would have had less impressive results.

While great design cannot cure cancer or repair damaged heart valves, it can significantly improve the experience of patients being treated for those conditions. In many instances, like PillPack and the imaging department at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, great design means happier AND healthier patients.