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When design saves lives: Behind the scenes of design’s healthcare innovation mission


By Natalie Mortimer | N/A

August 14, 2015 | 5 min read

Design and healthcare aren’t two disciplines that usually go hand-in-hand but London-based HELIX Centre (Healthcare Innovation Exchange) is for the first time putting design in the context of care to create better, faster healthcare solutions.

Based in an eye-catching wooden building in the grounds of St Mary’s Hospital the HELIX Centre, which is the result of a collaboration between the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London, it acts as a hub to engage frontline NHS staff and patients as co-design collaborators to improve service levels across all NHS Trusts.

Since its launch in November 2013, HELIX has been laying the foundations to tackle five major global health challenges; trauma care and rehabilitation; care of the elderly; managing long-term conditions; and staying healthy.

So far the centre has produced prototypes to improve asthma management in children, bowel cancer screening and childhood obesity through a mixture smartphone technology, card-based activities and improved design experience.

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Speaking to The Drum, Matthew Harrison, senior design associate at HELIX, explained how the centre is funded and why he believes HELIX is the first initiative of its kind globally.

“We got seed funding from the Higher Education Research Council to last us a few years and in return for that we have aims to achieve including startups, spin out companies and NHS efficiency savings, so our goals are commercial and impact focused rather than academic,” he said.

“We are really unique in that respect, we think we are the only design studio in a hospital in the world with that kind of remit... We sit within a clinical setting but our focus is the wider NHS so we are not designing just for this hospital. When we choose projects we look for things that could potentially become a piece of intellectual property – for something that can scale across different Trusts”.

HELIX is led by Professor Lord Ara Darzi, director of the Institute for Global Health Innovation at ICL, and Dr Paul Thompson, rector of the Royal College of Art, and works with a team of designers and doctors to design low-cost, high-impact frugal innovation techniques.

“We always start with a problem,” said Lenny Naar, design strategist, speaking about the centre’s approach to design. “We don’t say let’s redesign the peak flow meter [an instrument used to measure lung capacity in asthma patients]. We started with the idea that 70 per cent of hospital admissions related to asthma are avoidable, so there’s this mix of social and economic impact”.

To address the issue that asthma is poorly monitored in children, HELIX designed a smartphone game app and an acoustic input from a whistle which is calibrated to peak flow readings. The idea is to gamify taking a reading and minimise the stigma associated with managing asthma in public.

Despite the success of the centre to date, Naar still believes attitudes towards design in healthcare need to change among medical professionals and the general public for the two to work together fruitfully.

“We do get doctors coming to us [with ideas] but on the bigger scale we want to show that actually putting designers in this context can have an important impact. Design makes the difference between an idea working or not - that’s why the design industry exists; to take ideas, do the research and the analysis around it to make it beautiful, to make it easy to use and to make it commercially viable. There are a lot of people with ideas… but within healthcare there isn’t that culture of using design to get stuff done”.

The HELIX Centre will be taking part in next month’s London Design Festival which runs 19-27 September.


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