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Northwestern University

Twenty-Four Hours to Address a Twenty-Year-Old Problem

A large room is full of whiteboards covered in sticky notes with handwritten phrases like “nurse action lists” and “data analytics” and “virtual reality.”  In private study rooms, sounds ranged from whispers and keyboard-tapping fingers to energized brainstorming crescendos.

Given only 24 hours, nearly 80 graduate students from four leading Integrated Design Innovation (IDI) programs – Northwestern, University of Pennsylvania, MIT and Carnegie Mellon – were tasked to inject innovative design into medicine.

Welcome to the spirited chaos of the IDI 24-Hour Challenge.

At the human-centered design event hosted during October’s final weekend on the University of Pennsylvania campus, Dr. Lee Fleisher, Chair of the Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care at the the University of Pennsylvania Health System presented students a pressing real-world problem – Postoperative Cognitive Decline (POCD) or Delirium – and the threatening cognitive issues it poses.
Then, the clock began to tick.

Mixed teams of students, each assigned to address POCD before, during or after surgery, hustled to collect secondary research, interview medical personnel, ideate potential solutions and design – and then redesign – prototypes and mockups.

They started by exploring the problem firsthand, interviewing caregivers, design researchers, medical researchers, physicians, professors, surgeons, an anthropologist, and an anesthesiologist to understand the stakeholders’ perspectives. They visited an intensive care unit and doctors’ offices to get a sense of the environment. They developed empathy for stakeholders and identified their most pressing needs. Teams generated multiple ideas and talked about the pros and cons of each. Then, they broke down the ideas and built them back up again until they were confident in their direction.

The students’ creative solutions, crafted for patients as well as caregivers and medical staff, ran from the cutting-edge to the pragmatic: a sleeve for wireless bio-monitoring; an app for assessment and anxiety reduction; a virtual reality tool to simulate the sundown effect; a chatbot; an interactive storytelling platform; flashcards.

Clients from Penn Medicine loved the way that teams capitalized on their human-centered insights. Dr. Fleisher remarked upon groups’ utilization of family members’ time in the waiting room, calling it an “intervenable moment that we should be using.” Overall, he was impressed by the manner in which the students attacked a “20-year-old problem in 24 hours” producing a diversity of thought, which he attributed to the diversity in the room. A colleague, Dr. Mark Neuman, Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology and Critical Care and Attending Anesthesiologist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, commented on the value of the students perspectives, “Many things in medicine just aren’t designed.”

The students were able to develop innovative solutions to share with Dr. Fleisher and his Penn Medicine colleagues in Anesthesiology. They also enjoyed a rich, character-building experience that forced them to quickly digest a complex topic, heighten their design skills and broaden their professional networks.

“The challenge pushed me outside my comfort zone as I had to use skills I am less confident in and fill roles on the team I don’t usually take,” Northwestern student Aubrey Kraft said. “Realizing that we can use the design process to address complicated areas like health care in short periods of time gives me hope for future. It’s really about leveraging everyone’s skills to create impact.”

The 24-Hour Challenge, the fourth led by Penn’s Sarah Rottenberg and Northwestern’s Amy O’Keefe, now serves as a meeting point for students in Integrated Design Innovation Consortium graduate programs. The Consortium, a collaboration of elite graduate programs that blend design, engineering and business, aims to evolve and expand IDI programs and provide students the tools to approach complex problems with empathy, integrity and optimism as well as intellectual and creative rigor.

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