How Patch Adams inspired my career in human-centered design

“The purpose of a doctor or any human in general should not be to simply delay the death of the patient, but to increase the person’s quality of life.” – Patch Adams

Some of you may remember the Robin Williams movie, Patch Adams, from the late 90s, based on the real-life physician who created a hospital around the Planetree Method – a people-centered approach based around an overlay of caring for patients, caring for staff, and caring for community. When I was in school, I aspired to be the next Patch Adams. While I didn’t become a doctor, in a lot of ways, my life has taken a very similar route.

The intersection of science, creativity, and relationships, which was in large part what endeared me to Patch’s methodology, has been a through-line of my now 20+ year career. That, and my stubborn refusal to quit (thanks, grandpa) perfectly prepared me for my current position working on client strategy and growth at Studio Science and our approach to human-centered design. As it turns out, I indoctrinated myself into this approach before I even knew what design thinking was.

The one thing that has been woven throughout my career, from nursing school to a design degree, with a few stops along the way in motorsports entertainment, aviation, and healthcare, is empathy. No matter who the customer is, it comes down to understanding their view points, beliefs, emotions, and motivators. From sponsors who wanted their brand on the side of a car going 250 MPH, to a passenger on a plane trying to get home because of family emergency, or understanding the patient who wants to marry their high school sweetheart before they die in a hospital bed; empathizing and meeting customers where they are can mean something very different if you don’t understand the bigger problem you are solving for. 

For us at Studio Science, the process of doing this looks a little something like this:

  • Step 1: In order to fully empathize, you first must start with research to develop an understanding of your users and customers.
  • Step 2: Once you’ve done your research, then you define the problem.
  • Step 3: When the problem has been defined, you can then start to ideate a range of crazy, creative ideas to solve it.
  • Step 4: From here, you prototype and build real, tactile representations of your ideas.
  • Step 5: Test these ideas on your customers/users and gather feedback.
  • Step 6: Implement.

Early in my career I found myself working for Southwest Airlines, where the culture enthusiast in me was inspired by their founder, Herb Kelleher. He had taken an idea he mapped out on a cocktail napkin in a bar and succeeded in creating a fun airline focused on providing the best experience for its customers. As he put it, “The essential difference in service is not machines or ‘things.’ The essential difference is minds, hearts, spirits, and souls.” And Southwest ended up embodying this fully. 

In the 12 years I spent at Community Health Network as their Director of Patient and Family Experience, I worked closely with the CEO to find a way to bring the brand to life through human capital and making sure our people embodied the brand. 

It was during this time that I went to the Disney Institute, where I trained on the culture of the magic of Disney and learned a lot about experience. My time there taught me how to inspire doctors to use their imagination to empathize on a human level with their patients; how to communicate more effectively and not to enter into a patient room just trying to delay death, but to actually impact the quality of their life – to be part of their story as brand ambassadors.

Understanding perspectives that come from different walks of life may be one of the most important aspects of being a human – in and out of the office (my colleague Rob touched on this a bit in his recent blog). Yet somehow, many businesses, not just in the healthcare industry, still either fail to prioritize this, or believe they know what their customers want without really doing the work to confirm it (something my other colleague, Justin, has also touched on). Or it may be the case where they don’t take a chance on a candidate because they don’t have the “right credentials.” 

At one point while working at CHN, the CEO came to me and told me he wanted to build a team around the customer experience. We were pioneering something new with no reference, as no one in the healthcare industry was doing this at the time. When he asked me how I was going to do this, I referenced the book The Ten Faces of Innovation by IDEO’s founder Tom Kelley. In it, he frames how to build a team around 10 different metaphorical figures – the anthropologist, the caregiver, the producer, and so on. Years after that book equipped me with the tools I needed to tackle that challenge, I find myself somewhere that’s taking the same approach. 

One of the things I love about Studio Science, and working here, is that we’re a unique group of individuals bringing different perspectives, learnings, and expertise together in a choreographed way to create solutions to big problems for our clients. From using analytics and teaching soft skills and human factors, to validating it all through the customer’s perspective, we’re a team of innovators who are thinking completely differently about the experience that our clients are trying to deliver through their brands.

I look back at everything I learned in my previous roles, in such a challenging industry, and think about how much the hoops I jumped through have contributed to who I am today. I wouldn’t change any of it, as the perspectives I bring to my colleagues, our clients, and even to my personal life, are all a direct result of those experiences. I like to think I’ve turned out more like Patch than I ever could have imagined.

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