Design Thinking: A Powerful Tool for Patient-Centered Innovation in SBHCs

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Categories: Leadership, Los Angeles health care, SBHCs, Wellness Centers

By Rachel Hamburg, Gina Airey Consulting

Our firm, Gina Airey Consulting, was excited to join participants at the first ever L.A. County SBHC Conference to share one of our favorite tools for problem-solving and innovating—design thinking. In our plenary session, “Problem Solved! Using Design Thinking to Solve your SBHCs Most Common Challenges,” we introduced attendees to this simple but powerful tool that is used by changemakers across the globe to increase their impact.

Most conference participants were completely new to design thinking, while a few knew about it and had even used it to improve their health center designs and services. By the end of the session, everyone in the room had experienced a taste of design thinking—and how useful it can be for coming up with innovative solutions.

Put simply, design thinking helps you create solutions that are rooted in deep understanding of the people you are designing for. Design thinking says that any problem, big or small, can be framed as a design challenge, whether that be designing better services for patients, better co-referral processes, or better billing systems.

Our Plenary Session

Our plenary featured a mini design challenge for participants, who were tasked with coming up with solutions to the following: How might we strengthen connections and shared learning among practitioners and advocates of school based health care in L.A. County? In answering this question, we explored two major aspects of design thinking: getting to know users and brainstorming.

One of the core tenets of design thinking is that anytime you’re designing a program or service, you’re creating it for a specific audience—otherwise known as “users.” In school based health, your users might be students, patients, parents, practitioners, and/or school leaders. Whoever your users are, your aim is to create the best possible design to meet their needs, and to do so, your design must be based on empathy and a deep understanding of those needs.

For example, if you’re designing the patient experience, you need to start by observing and learning about it from patients’ first interaction with your health center, including their experiences of the physical space (entering parking lot, approaching the entrance, sitting in the waiting room, etc.) and every interaction with staff and others before, during, and after an appointment.

A  Mini Design Challenge

In our mini design challenge, participants gained understanding and empathy for one another through interviewing each other about what they want to get out of connections with other practitioners and advocates and sharing stories about past experiences connecting with peers.

After getting to know your users, the next phase in design thinking involves quick and unrestrained brainstorming to come up with solutions that address your users’ needs. In this phase, you’re encouraged to write down any ideas you come up with, even if they seem completely fantastical. Why? Because freeing up your thinking process in this way can help you come up with solutions you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise or, even if you did, might not have let yourself write down. Sometimes, the ideas that seem the strangest or least possible plant the seed for a really great solution.

During our mini design challenge, participants had two minutes to come up with as many creative ideas as possible for how to strengthen connections and shared learning among practitioners and advocates of school based health care. Participants came up with dozens of inspired ideas, from offering health checks to parents at back-to-school nights, to peer support pairings between SBHCs, to shadowing opportunities in high performing wellness centers, to an SBHC Olympics-style competition.

Some aspects of design thinking may sound familiar to you. You may already use some of the techniques or the mindset in your work, for instance by collecting data about what your users want. We see this as an asset: design thinking can be extremely effective in healthcare settings precisely because it aligns well with best practice models for patient-centered care, and also brings additional tools to the table that enhance the delivery of wellness education and patient care.

What  We’ve Learned

In our firm’s 13 years working with The L.A. Trust and partner organizations, we have gotten to know many creative and passionate organizational leaders, practitioners, and advocates of school based health care. We hope design thinking can be a tool for continued innovation within your work, so that you may grow the impact you are able to make on the wellbeing of students, families, and communities.

We look forward to continuing to support the vital work you do. For more information about Gina Airey Consulting or to talk further about using design thinking in your work, contact us at or visit


Student Health = Student Success