How Design Thinking Is Changing Medicine

PInCH, a competition that embraces design thinking, is attempting to revolutionize biomedical research.h.

​Courtesy University of Pittsburgh

When his two sons began studying engineering and architecture, Dr. Steven Reis, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), noticed something fascinating. As a biomedical scientist, Reis had been trained to begin research with a problem—but no goal—in mind; his sons, on the other hand, were learning to approach problem-solving in an entirely different manner.  Reis was detecting a phenomenon described by the psychologist and design researcher Bryan Lawson in his 1972 book How Designers Think. According to Lawson scientists focus “their attention on understanding the underlying rules” of a problem, while architects are “obsessed with achieving the desired result.” Watching his sons, Reis began to wonder, “What would happen if we applied a human-centered, solution-focused mindset to medical research?”

In 2014, Reis and Dr. John Maier of the CTSI, part of a consortium of institutions funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to rethink research, launched the Pitt Innovation Challenge (PInCh), which aims to “foster an ecosystem of innovation” and “solve challenging health problems” by reimagining the typical process for research funding. Part of an increasing trend towards using prize money as an inducement for technical innovation, PInCh, now in its third year, will offer over $600k in research grants for University of Pittsburgh faculty in 2016.

A typical NIH grant application focuses on a researcher’s technical capacity to make contributions to their field; a PInCH application, on the other hand, asks applicants to create short 2-minute videos, voted on by peers and the public, in which they think broadly about major concerns facing the medical community and, most importantly, explain how their work will translate in the real world. In the words of Dr. Yadong Wang, a 2014 PInCh awardee, “the typical grant proposal is telling a story, but a very technical story. With PInCh, we really were focusing on how to translate that technology from the bench to the real world. That’s something we don’t do at all with other NIH grants.”After a phase of selection based on preliminary research, six finalists present their projects, in dramatic Shark Tank-style, to a jury that spans clinical, scientific, and business sectors. In the end, three winners are chosen based on their level of innovation and the likelihood they will be able to solve the proposed problem.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the names of PInCh projects sound more like startups than the medical research studies they actually are. The results from the 2015 competition were NeatCap (hearing protection for newborn babies), OxiDent (a strategy to reduce dental implant inflammation), and Phoenix (a biodegradable vascular graft). Although some winning projects are commercialized, the PInCh award money provides crucial support for the continued research and development of high-risk research projects that might otherwise have difficulty procuring funding.

So far, the results of the CTSI’s experiment are promising. Since launching the competition in 2014, PInCh has received 202 video entries, a vastly higher number of submissions than the CTSI has received for comparable grants—a fact Reis attributes to the unique form of the competition. Even those projects that didn’t advance past the first round benefited: surveys of participants show that the competition stimulated new lines of inquiry among 79% of teams. With all the positive outcomes, PInCh is being expanded with three new competitions this spring, and Reis and Maier are still testing the format by experimenting with bonuses for community partnerships and designers on teams.

Since founding PInCh, design thinking has penetrated deeper into the University’s medical research infrastructure. Reis and Maier have begun collaborating with the LA-based design firm Wondros to investigate other issues, including how the University engages and recruits volunteer participants for medical studies. With the introduction of a solution-focused mindset, the people benefiting from design thinking in the context of medical research are patients, the scientific community, and the researchers themselves.

Sarah Rafson is an architecture writer, editor, and curator. In 2015 she founded Point Line Projects, an editorial and curatorial agency for architecture and design.

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