Design Thinking in Global Health

For our second expert session this semester in the Global Health AG, we invited Dr. Lloyd Nash, specialist Internal Medicine physician and global health practitioner. His clinical work is focused on indigenous health in remote Northern Australia and pacific island health in Vanuatu as part of the Australian Aid program. He is Co-founder & Chair of Global Ideas and introduced design thinking as an approach to finding solutions in global health.

Dr. Nash defined design thinking as “a multi-stage process that optimises solutions based on users’ needs, behaviours, constraints and contexts. Solutions are repeatedly tested and refined throughout the design and development process as well as implementation.”
Coming from the tech world and product design, design thinking provides a structured and action oriented approach to being creative, to collaboration and to communication across disciplines. It is centered around the stakeholders in a bottom-up process. This bottom-up process, it was noted, can be seen as contrary to sharing good practices where successful interventions are transferred from one context to another.

There exist different models of a design thinking approach that all share similar staging. The following five-stage-definition originates from the nonprofit

1.    Discovery –  I have a challenge. How do I approach it?
2.    Interpretation –   I learned something. How do I interpret it?
3.   Ideation –  I see an opportunity. What do I create?
4.   Experimentation –  I have an idea. How do I create it?
5.   Evolution – I tried something. How do I evolve it?

The multi-stage process of design thinking can be divided into alternating periods of divergence (1,3) and convergence (2,4). This allows to work effectively with limitations such as time pressure and a tight budget. While divergence periods give space for creativity and broad thinking, periods of convergence keep the process focused and within a feasible frame. The importance of simple and cheap prototypes is another characteristic ensuring financial viability of the process and encouraging a more positive attitude to failure (fail ‘fast, early and cheap’).

Design thinking is further characterized by the use of an extensive toolkit for data collection and evaluation. Some users might not be able to identify and directly express their needs. To still be able to fully analyze and understand a problem, focus groups, shadowing, secondary research, space/place visits, camera journals, competitive analysis and the check of personal inventory are some of the methods and tools used in design thinking. For giving feedback, it was stressed, the focus lies not on educating the user to give adequate and productive feedback but on educating the collector to understand and extrapolate from a given situation or context.

Most global health challenges of the 21st century are complex systems problems that require an approach such as design thinking to solve.
Global warming, antimicrobial resistances, population dynamics and fragmented governance are some of the current challenges in the field of global health. These challenges arise from and affect numerous elements; they cannot be solved by finding a single technical solution. Instead, they need to be approached in the systems context they exist in. In contrast to problems of a complicated nature which can be defined and solved algorithmically, today’s global health challenges are complex; they are hard to define and may even seem unsolvable. This complexity along with the system nature of global health challenges of the 21st century, calls for an approach such as design thinking to successfully find solutions.

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