Design Thinking and Revolutionizing Medical Education

Bassam Zahid, MSII

It’s looking like another idyllic spring just north of Charlotte Avenue, as the season turns and the trees start to bloom and the birds begin to chirp. For all intents and purposes, Meharry Medical College has had a successful year and we still have a few months left. This year, our school opened up The Cal Turner Family Center for Student Education for full-time use. Meharry and 2100, the school’s health and technology interest group, also launched the school’s first mobile app, Meharry Mobile, which was born out of student-administration collaboration. And the School of Medicine Class of 2016 has found its match in competitive residencies and specialties. Justifiably, there is a feeling of accomplishment and success in the air.

But as we pat ourselves on the back, we must also be aware that there is a revolution happening at medical schools across the nation. Certain institutions are leading the conversation on what medical education will look like. They are not doing it based on their name or their rank or their level of experience in medical education. Instead, these schools are reinventing medical education simply by being the first to act.


This past year, University of California, Irvine School of Medicine piloted a program where they distributed Google Glass to third- and fourth-year students in the operating room and emergency room departments. They also gave first- and second-year students the opportunity to test out Google Glass in anatomy labs, the medical stimulation center and in the classroom where live patient-physician encounters were broadcast between the medical center and the lecture hall.

At Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, administrators have revamped their curriculum to include a design track in order to equip medical students with training in design thinking to solve health care challenges. It is the beginning of a trend where the traditional STEM fields are being merged with art disciplines to create STEAM (A for art!). Design thinking is a popular philosophy of execution practiced by designers and, in recent decades, has found its way into fields like computer science, higher education and, of course, health care.

And at the most extreme level, the University of Texas at Austin is opening its doors to the first class of Dell Medical School, an educational institute designed in the spirit of fostering innovation, creativity and design thinking principles from the beginning. They are going so far as to hire designers from the internationally known design school, IDEO, to head up their Design Institute for Health. Their mission is to re-imagine medical education.


In March, I attended the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) conference, an annual student administrators gathering, with Tammi Lavender, director of student life at Meharry, to present some of the advances we have made at our school. In between studying and preparing for our presentation, I attended a talk on “Design Thinking in Higher Education” given by the jCENTER at the University of Minnesota, a think tank dedicated to reinventing higher education using design thinking principles.

Design thinking is used by a number of major design and technology companies from IDEO to Google to IBM to the Stanford (d for design). It is a human-centered, solution-focused, and action-oriented philosophy that revolves around solving problems by acknowledging that there are multiple paths to an answer and that we should be open to them all. Ultimately, design thinking does not reside in the realm of theory. It requires actually doing, making, creating in order to learn and grow.

Design thinking is not necessarily point A to point B thinking. It is a non-linear process that requires one to be systematic and imaginative. At times you want to be razor-focused on the task at hand, while at other times you want to let your mind wander. This is called convergent and divergent thinking. Sometimes you will need to rely on experience and other times experimentation will be more useful.

Design thinking starts with the human. At the beginning, it is important to start with empathy. Who is the population and what are they struggling with? For example, in the classroom, how are the students learning and what can we do to enhance their learning? In the clinics, how can we redesign our teaching so that the patients get the best care possible? Next, we want to define the problem. We want to identify a problem that we can fix. After that, we want to generate as many ideas as possible. This is where the convergent and divergent thinking comes into play. This is a no judgment zone.

I mentioned earlier that design thinking is action-oriented. This is where coming up with a prototype and testing it are paramount. The goal of design thinking is to learn by doing. Instead of great ideas and initiatives becoming lost in the bureaucracy of committees and meetings and emails, the onus is that we act as soon as possible. Ultimately, at the end of the testing phase, you reiterate and return back to the start with empathy. You keep trying to improve your product or service until you have a result you are satisfied with.

So, as I sat in this conference room and listened to the researcher from the jCENTER espouse the amazing benefits of design thinking, it dawned on me: Why are we trying to catch up in a medical education system that will likely be obsolete in 10 years? Schools reinventing their curriculums to include design principles or introducing cutting edge technology to their students or participating in AMA’s Accelerating Change in Medical Education Consortium (which includes Vanderbilt by the way) will be rewriting how medical education is delivered. Are we really just going to wait for the change to come to us? What if we paved our own way?


In order to revolutionize medical education, we need to start with the classroom experience. Let’s encourage professors to update their lecture slides every year. The knowledge in medicine doubles every four years and our society is already overwhelmed by information overload. Asking students to look at slides that contain the names of obscure drugs is an exercise in futility when time and resources are limited.

Let’s start videotaping lectures, which will not only allow students to revisit a lecture if they need to, but can also be a way to improve the delivery of content by the professors in the classroom. If professional athletes can break down their tendencies with game film why can’t educators? After all, isn’t teaching an art?

Let’s create a live internet audio feed for all lectures. From the physics of sound waves we understand that these longitudinal waves dissipate over distance so that what students hear in the front will be different from those in the back. I won’t hear the name of that obscure drug the professor mentioned because the sound wave has bounced off the heads and laptops of the 10 rows of students in front of me. But what if I could just put on my headphones and listen to crystal clear audio of the professor as she spoke from the front of the room? Wouldn’t that also cut down on distractions while creating a more personal learning environment?

Let’s begin collaborating with students beyond just putting out an impersonal survey. Organize us in random, cross-disciplinary focus groups and then talk to us. Do the same with administrators, faculty, even the grounds crew. In fact, organizations like Pre-Alumni Association, 2100 and class E-boards should probably do the same for their students, faculty and administrators as well. Let’s start from a place of empathy. As health professionals, isn’t that what we are best at?


These are just a few ideas I have, but what else can we imagine if we put together the experiences and brain power of hundreds of professional students, teachers and administrators? I am calling for a shift in our attitudes and our energy so that we work collaboratively instead of antagonistically. Meharry was the only school that gave many of us a chance to fulfill this once-in-a-lifetime dream. So when we advocate for change, we mean it from a good place. Let’s not forget that.

So as we put the cherry on top of yet another productive year, make sure to enjoy the spring galas and the inauguration festivities. Take the time to reflect on how amazing it is that Meharry is still standing and how we survived the Flexner Report. Give thanks to the giants that paved the way for us and raised the bar. Toast President Hildreth and the graduates of 2016 for leading the way. But remember, after the inauguration, after that collective sigh of relief, the honeymoon is over. Now the real work can commence. Let’s innovate medical education to revolutionize health care. In other words, let’s change the world.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s