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Health System Execs Discuss Human-Centered Design at Innovation Exchange

Analysis  |  By Eric Wicklund  
   October 04, 2022

With Sutter Health Chief Design and Innovation Officer Chris Waugh leading the way, health system executives attending the HealthLeaders Innovation Exchange learned how to bring compassion and empathy back into healthcare.

Healthcare providers may be able to bring care to the patient, but do they really care for the patient?

Roughly two dozen chief information officers and other health system executives charged with setting innovation strategy gathered in Boston recently for the HealthLeaders Innovation Exchange, where they were told that the industry often lacks empathy for the people it's supposed to treat. And that connection to the patient will be vital as the industry shifts to value-based care.

"What's happening in healthcare is we peg patients by condition and we have absolutely no idea who they are," said Chris Waugh, vice president and chief design and innovation officer for California-based Sutter Health. "We know that precision medicine will be amazing [and] we know about precision genetics, but what about precision care?"

An expert in human-centered design, Waugh was vice president of design at the San Francisco-based One Medical Group and held an entrepreneurial leadership role at IDEO, a Bay Area design and innovation firm, before joining Sutter Health. His accomplishments there include the development and launch of Tera, the health system's virtual visit platform.

At the Innovation Exchange, he gave the attendees a Master Class on human-centered design, which focuses on thinking about the person you're treating as you plan the treatment. While in other businesses it's designed to make the customer happy and support return engagement, in healthcare the strategy is vital to not only boost engagement but improve clinical outcomes.

[See also: Healthcare Executives Plot a Path Forward With Digital Health Transformation}.

As an example, he detailed how Sutter Health creates baby books for new mothers that detail the baby's journey from the hospital to the home. Those books include interviews conducted by Sutter Health staff with the new mother on everything from Mom's emotions to the weather, and are given to the mother 30 days after discharge—at a time when family and friends usually drift away to leave the new family alone, post-discharge care plans with the hospital or doctor tail away, and post-partum issues like stress and depression creep in.

The book, Waugh said, not only gives new mothers an emotional link to the hospital, it helps to reconnect them with the hospital to seek additional care, a strategy to tackle high rates of depression and improve outcomes for both mother and child over the long run.

Waugh then split the audience into groups, gave them a profile of a patient or care provider, and asked them to develop a care management plan (or, in the case of the provider, a workflow) that would meet their needs and boost engagement.

The purpose of the exercise was to encourage healthcare executives to look beyond traditional care management pathways and identify other ways to deliver care, including using digital health tools that allow patients and providers to access more resources. In doing so, they were compelled to look at care delivery from the patient's point of view, identifying the gaps and challenges that affect patients and their families, that might be overlooked by providers.

James McElligott, MD, MSCR, executive medical director for telehealth and an associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina's Children's Hospital, pointed out that the delivery of healthcare may be a business to clinicians, but it's personal to their patients, and clinicians need to find or reinforce that emotional connection.

The concept isn't new. The American Telemedicine Association focused on the idea of bringing humanity back to healthcare at their annual conference this past May in Boston. But as the pandemic eases and healthcare organizations redirect their energies to the shift from episodic care to value-based care, those in charge of innovation need to focus their investment on new technologies and strategies that highlight the value in care delivery.

That focus will also help health systems as they deal with post-pandemic challenges ranging from workforce shortages, stress and burnout, and pressure from non-traditional healthcare resources that include telehealth providers, payers and health plans with their own provider services, and retail giants like Amazon, Walmart, CVS, and Google.

With those pressures, Waugh and others noted, health system leaders will need to be innovative to keep their patients engaged and attract consumers to their brand. That will include incorporating services that address the social determinants of health, such as ride-sharing, nutrition and exercise, and housing and financial assistance. It might also include childcare services or coupons for a night out for new parents or stressed-out staff.

And that, attendees at the Innovation Exchange learned, is what makes healthcare intriguing right now.

"I'm excited about building the foundation of better [healthcare]," noted Saad Chaudhry, MSc, MPH, CHCIO, CDH-E, chief information officer at Maryland's Luminis Health.

The HealthLeaders Exchange is an executive community for sharing ideas, solutions, and insights. Follow the community on LinkedIn. To inquire about attending a HealthLeaders Exchange, email us at

“What's happening in healthcare is we peg patients by condition and we have absolutely no idea who they are.”

Eric Wicklund is the associate content manager and senior editor for Innovation, Technology, and Pharma for HealthLeaders.


Roughly two dozen health system executives convened in Boston last week for the HealthLeaders Innovation Exchange, an event focused on innovation strategy in healthcare.

The event featured a master class led by Chris Waugh, vice president and chief design and innovation officer at Sutter Health, on how to use human-centered design in care planning and management.

Attendees focused on the idea that healthcare may be a business, but to patients it's personal, and providers have to embrace new technologies and strategies that establish that connection with their patients.

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