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New Health Design Thinking Program established

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Jennifer Kallio, DDS, T.J. Welniak, MD, Katherine Bravo, PhD, and Amy Pick, PharmD, have been named the campus co-directors of UNMC’s new Health Design Thinking Program.

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Jennifer Kallio, DDS T.J. Welniak, MD

The program, supported by the UNMC Office of Academic Affairs and the chancellor’s office, signals a major strategic initiative for UNMC, said Dele Davies, MD, senior vice chancellor for academic affairs, and will build upon UNMC’s success with design thinking workshops and the design thinking interest group of the Interprofessional Academy of Educators.

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Katherine Bravo, PhD Amy Pick, PharmD

Design thinking is an approach to problem-solving that emphasizes collaborative, outside-the-box thinking that directly considers the wants and needs of the person being served instead of relying only on historical data or instinct-based judgements. UNMC has been holding design thinking workshops since 2019.

Since then, more than 70 faculty at UNMC have been trained in design thinking, and several projects have been addressed, including optimal care for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities seeking dental care at MMI. The new program will make access to workshops, boot camps and solving health care problems through design thinking available to many more and enable the development of a scholarly approach for interested faculty, staff and students.

"When we first started in 2019, we saw this as an opportunity to introduce a new method of solving problems based on empathy," Dr. Davies said. "As we looked at the successes elsewhere, especially in industry, we found that it was a very powerful tool to design systems that took into consideration the needs of the end user in a much more empathetic way."

"In order for this to become embedded in our culture, we need continual leadership. Our new co-directors have been sharing their expertise on their own time already -- now we will support those efforts."

UNMC Chancellor Jeffrey P. Gold, MD, expressed his support for the new program.

"UNMC faculty have embraced the design thinking model," Dr. Gold said. "The new Health Design Thinking program will help keep UNMC on the cutting-edge of education, research and clinical care. Collaboration, creativity and empathy are important tools in our effort to lead the world in creating healthy futures for those we serve."

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the importance of design thinking, Dr. Kallio said.

"We’ve all had to learn to pivot to new platforms, to different ways of thinking about and solving problems," she said. "We’re bringing people with diverse perspectives together to work on complex challenges."

With dedicated time to work toward UNMC’s design thinking goals - which will include a design thinking showcase this November that already is accepting abstracts - "we’ll start to move the needle on design thinking and trying to accomplish Dr. Davies’ vision for UNMC as a national design thinking figure," she said.  

While design thinking as a strategy began in the business and engineering world, UNMC’s health design thinking efforts have proved popular, Dr. Bravo said.

Just last month, all 127 COM M4 students participated in a successful two-day design thinking workshop led by the new co-directors as part of their Health Systems Sciences coil addressing the problem "How might the UNMC COM best prepare learners to work together in teams to provide better care for patients and communities?" Also, UNMC has partnered with colleagues at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, including the Scott Scholars and at Stanford d. school to address other specific health design questions.

"We’re recognizing that we can’t rely on the same model of health care," Dr. Bravo said. "The ability to work in these interprofessional groups has really been refreshing. Design thinking offers a common platform to break down barriers and overcome preconceived notions about working with others. It allows for innovation and creativity with a health care spin, with the end user placed at forefront."

Dr. Welniak said UNMC is well-placed to join the national conversation on health design thinking, one of Dr. Davies’ stated goals for the program.

"There is a major opportunity in developing what this looks like from a curricular, interprofessional education level, tapping into innovation already taking place on campus," Dr. Welniak said. "We’re taking a discipline that has been used and validated in so many aspects of industry, including health care - but to have academic health care institution be at the forefront of this, we are lucky to be in that position with only a handful of other institutions."

The creation of the program will not only help with design thinking at UNMC, it will strengthen interprofessional collaboration across the university, Dr. Pick said.

"We can heighten our understanding as to how design thinking can be beneficial, how we can use design thinking framework in addressing today’s complex and challenging issues.

"One reason I appreciate design thinking is that it eliminates the assumptions we often make," she said. "When you go directly to the user and better understand their wants, needs and desires, you then can determine a human-centered approach."

In choosing Drs. Kallio, Welniak, Pick and Bravo, Dr. Davies said he expects an impact far beyond the UNMC community.

"We are investing in people we believe can be national leaders," he said. "We want UNMC to lead nationally in health design thinking solutions, and these co-directors can bring our work into national prominence."   

Health design thinking pioneer on external advisory board

Bon Ku, MD, director of the Health Design Lab at Thomas Jefferson University and the man who wrote the book on health design thinking (literally -- the book is titled "Health Design Thinking: Creating Products and Services for Better Health") is a member of UNMC's external advisory group for the program.

"I am delighted to be part of the external advisory board for this exciting program. What I’ve seen during the pandemic is an outburst of creativity," Dr. Ku said. "Outdoor COVID testing, incentives for people to be vaccinated.

"At the end of day, we want to create the best experience possible for our patients, and the more everyone is involved, from leaders to front line workers, that design thinking mindset leads to better experiences for our patients."

Design thinking itself is not a huge stretch for a health care worker, Dr. Ku pointed out.

"In health care, we think about what is best for our patient; we focus on building empathy for our patient," he said. "It’s the same in design thinking, but design thinking takes it a step further. We’re thinking about not only the patient, but the human. After all, you’re not a patient all the time, you go in and out of being a patient - so who is the human behind the patient? And that question forces us to think about the social and environmental context of our patients. Housing situation? Employment? Access to healthy foods? The majority of what makes us healthy does not happen in the hospital or clinic."

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