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Focusing on Empathy in Healthcare Innovation

Amanda Newman

Healthcare Innovation Fellow, Health For America

Imagine you are one of 29.1 million Americans living with type 2 diabetes. Where do you turn for information? What barriers prevent you from making healthier choices about diet and exercise? What kind of financial strain do you experience because of your disease? How do you manage your care within the context of your busy life?

In the fall of 2015, these questions propelled an interdisciplinary team of young professionals into an immersive two-week-long simulation of life with type 2 diabetes based on patient profiles that the MedStar Diabetes Institute assigned. For the group of four, the experience marked the beginning of the Health for America fellowship, Health For America’s (HFA) flagship initiative, which is designed to tap the nation’s spirit of entrepreneurism to find novel ways to approach complex problems in healthcare. MedStar Health just announced its integration of the HFA fellowship program, furthering its commitment to being a leader in education and innovation.

On the first morning of the simulation, several members of the team walked into the office late due to the newly introduced time and energy required to test blood glucose levels, manage more than 10 medications, and count the carbohydrate content of painstakingly portioned breakfasts. After the initial shock of that first morning, the fellows’ understanding of life with type 2 diabetes continued to grow — as did their thinking about innovative solutions.

As part of the research phase of the fellowship, the simulation deepened the team’s understanding of the type 2 diabetes landscape. The experience also created a strong foundation of empathy, which has supported the fellows in their efforts to “design with” instead of “design for” a range of stakeholders. By interviewing and shadowing, the team also began to map the flow of information, services, and money in diabetes care. And, in tying these experiences together, the fellows uncovered the complexities of a chronic disease posing significant challenges to local and global healthcare systems, economies, and communities.

Simulating diabetes management within the frame of daily work schedules and commutes informed the team of the challenges of constant, high-stakes decision-making and planning, especially with regard to diet management. After validating these experiences with people living with diabetes, the fellows began to explore the potential for new tools and services to support people with diabetes in making healthier choices and in building nutritional literacy.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is attempting to tackle nutritional literacy at the national level, and the Capital Area Food Bank is making progress on the local level in Washington, D.C. To build upon this work, the HFA fellows are interested in how the human-centered design and lean startup methodologies might lend themselves to the development of a scalable and sustainable solution with deep impact.

The HFA fellows also discovered that they, like many people with diabetes, struggled to access accurate information and support once they left the clinic. In response, the fellows began conversations with patients and diabetes care providers about innovative ways to increase access to much needed ongoing care and education after patients leave the clinic and return to their daily lives.

The MedStar Diabetes Institute and other programs around the country are beginning to offer patients real-time support through the use of smart devices, which transmit blood glucose readings to care providers. With this data, physicians and other members of the care team are better equipped to help patients understand their diabetes and their care plans.

The fellows are now investigating opportunities to make this kind of connected education, monitoring, and support more accessible and sustainable for the patients who need it most. Over the next several months, the HFA team will move a selection of proposed solutions through market analysis, prototyping, and user testing in an effort to drive at least one idea toward implementation. In doing so, the fellows will continue to gain experience and apply design thinking, lean startup methodologies, and other entrepreneurial techniques built into the program by its founders Madhura Bhat, MBA, MPH and Kapil Parakh, MD, PhD, MPH.

In addition, the full integration of HFA within the MedStar Institute for Innovation (MI2), whose mission is to catalyze innovation that advances health, will provide additional support and resources to the current and future classes of fellows. This will accelerate their efforts to design impactful, sustainable solutions for chronic disease management, and, by accessing MedStar’s unique founding partnership with 1776, the 2015-2016 HFA class is positioned to improve the health of underserved communities across America.

While the range of opportunities remains vast and the path forward unchartered, the fellows have and will continue to build and strengthen a powerful network within MedStar Health, 1776, and around the country as the program continues and grows. Health for America believes that the most innovative solutions to 21st-century health challenges are within reach. As its relationship with MedStar Health deepens, the HFA fellowship program is committed to the power of empathic design, interdisciplinary collaboration, and sustainable impact that puts patients first.

Amanda Newman

Healthcare Innovation Fellow, Health For America

Amanda is an alumna and strategic advisor to the Health for America at MedStar Health fellowship. As a 2015-16 fellow, Amanda worked with a team of early career professionals to build…