Majoring in Medicine, Minoring in Design

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Bon Ku_photoBon Ku, MD, MPP is an emergency medicine physician and associate professor at Thomas Jefferson University. He teaches design thinking to medical students as a co-director of the design track at Jefferson’s medical school. This track, called “College within a College—Design,” launched this year with fifteen students. The students participate in interactive workshops focused on design challenges in healthcare, exploring topics like mobile technology in healthcare, 3-D printing for safer surgery, or the patient experience. The program is the first in the country to develop a design curriculum spanning all four years of medical school, and it also offers early admission to select non-traditional students. Dr. Ku’s own path to medicine, research, and design has been unique. He studied classics in college, did research ranging from point-of-care ultrasound to improving quality of care for Philadelphia’s homeless, and studied health policy by pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy at Princeton. Now, Dr. Ku wants to foster creativity and innovation in future physicians through design thinking.

I spoke with Dr. Ku about why design in medicine is so important, what the program at Jefferson does to foster creativity in medical students, and what issues in medicine are ripe for redesign.

V: What was your career path to medicine and to design?

Dr. Ku: I’m an emergency physician, and one reason why I like this field is that there’s a lot of variety in it. As an academic, you can explore a wide range of research interests. I was a classical studies major in college, I studied Greek and Latin, so I’ve always had a lot of interests outside of medicine. I found that design thinking was a concrete approach to coming up with solutions to challenges in different domains. It really resonated with me when I started learning more about design thinking and its focus on empathy, iteration, brainstorming, ideation, and collaboration with people from other disciplines. I realized that I did a little bit of this already, but it was incredible to really learn more about the design methodology.

V: So I know each year, starting with this year, you have fifteen students in the design track of the medical school. What kind of classes do you have for these 15 students who’ve chosen this track?

Dr. Ku: We’ve reached out to people outside of medicine to create our workshops, so it’s really been a very collaborative and cross-disciplinary experience. I think of it as a major in medicine and minor in design. Our classes are very different from the regular medical school curriculum, because they look more like what you’d take in an industrial design program. We usually center the workshops on a design challenge in health. For example, our first workshop was on redesigning the patient experience in the emergency room, and we had students use design methodology to come up with some solutions to the problems that they saw in the ER. And we had a workshop with The Action Mill—they’re a small design firm near Philadelphia that focuses on end of life communication issues—on how we can improve end of life communications between patients and providers. Our students have also participated in a couple of hackathons, including one recently at MIT where one of our students took first prize as part of a team in tele-health strategy.

V: What are some examples of things that students have created at design workshops?

Dr. Ku: At the very first workshop we had, which was on patient experience in the emergency room, one student saw that there was a lack of communication between ER providers and the waiting room patients who did not know when they might be seen. So he designed a messaging system that allows the ER to interact with patients easily so that they would know how long it’d be before they get seen, when their imaging test is going to get done, and so on. He actually floated this concept to our innovation center at Jefferson and they loved the idea so much that they’re considering building it.

First year medical students from Jefferson University participate in an industrial design class. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Cain Images)
First year medical students from Jefferson University participate in an industrial design class. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Cain Images)

V: What’s it like for the students to go through medical school, which is very regimented, and then also have this period of time set out for creativity?

Dr. Ku: I think some of the best compliments I’ve gotten were when students told me that to them, it’s not even like going to class. They’ve repeatedly said that it’s a nice break. In the design curriculum, there’s very little traditional didactics and it’s very hands-on, and interactive. Unfortunately, by contrast the traditional medical school curriculum is sitting in a classroom memorizing massive amounts of content. The purpose of the design track in our program is not to have them leave medical school and become designers. We really are hoping that they incorporate these ideas into their practice and become better physicians. We want them to be inspired to come up with creative solutions that can help, because there’s so much cynicism that goes on in those out there in the real world. We want to show that medical school can be a creative place, and you still need that creative energy to be a physician. I have friends who are artists, and they say, “If I knew about these sorts of programs when I was in college, I would have thought about going to medical school.” A lot of people think that doctors are not creative.

V: What do you see as the biggest areas for redesign in medical education?

Dr. Ku: In redesigning medical education, I think we need to pivot away from the massive memorization that occurs in the traditional approach. Before, as doctors, we had this monopoly on knowledge, but there’s no way we can keep up in the future, and so I think we need to rethink what the role of a physician should be. Healthcare is changing so much that we’re going to have to be very creative to come up with solutions. And I think teaching to prepare doctors of the future to deal with that complexity is important. I’m not saying we shouldn’t memorize, but there is an overemphasis on memorization, especially when as physicians we can pull out our smartphones and get an answer in a couple of seconds. It’s more important to learn how to get that knowledge and how to think critically and analyze it.

V: What’s an urgent design problem in medicine?

Dr. Ku: In medicine, I think there needs to be a discussion on the redesign of the actual delivery of healthcare, because it’s not a one size fits all solution for patients. The delivery of care should be as precise as individual chemotherapy treatments. Often, we take the patient out of the treatment making decision process, and when the patient doesn’t comply to our treatment prescription, we say that the patient is non-compliant. We put the blame on the patient, instead of thinking, let’s ask the patient what they think will help them heal and help them improve. Everyone says the healthcare system is messed up in the United States, but as doctors we like to blame everyone else—the government, insurance companies, or the payment system. We’re a part of the problem, but we also have a huge opportunity to change things.