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We Run Strategic Design Workshops With Physicians and You Should Too


Kaden Rushford

athenahealth's mission is to build the healthcare internet. Unlike other electronic medical record (EHR) companies, athenahealth’s research and development team looks beyond the needs of insurance companies and government regulations to design, execute and constantly improve products in support of the practice of medicine and moments of doctoring.

In November 2016, experience designers working on athenahealth’s EHR ran two days of strategic design workshops with 30 physicians from five specialties including cardiology, family medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, orthopedics and pediatrics. Here’s how we did it and why you should, too.


1. We focused on business priorities

By running strategic design workshops with actual physicians we can quickly surface what matters most to them. The important first step is to focus on the business problems your team needs to solve to have a positive impact on the physician experience. We used a common design method known as ‘how might we’ statements help us frame our goals and encourage the generation of ideas from the physician's point of view. For example:
  • How might we manage and surface priority work for physicians?
  • How might we eliminate system busy work to elevate the work required of physicians and staff?
  • How might we support physician decision making in real time?
  • How might we add value to the way clinical decisions are captured and shared along the healthcare continuum?
Digging into priorities and pain with actual physicians, enables you to design solutions in service of the physician’s goals, rather than designing a screen or feature that is just built to their specifications.

2. We designed activities to produce short and long term outcomes
Experience leads who are embedded on agile scrum teams designed activities to feed incremental improvements as well as the long term vision for the experience their team is set up to deliver in the future.

One activity forced the physicians to sort cards of small enhancements into an upcoming ‘sprint.’ Each card had a point value and they needed to select the cards for a 25 point sprint. The physicians were able to prioritize the items as we listened. The items they crumpled up and threw away were as important as the items thought were important and necessary.

photo 1

Another activity started with each physician telling a story about patient care and then completed a worksheet to identify and prioritize the information that could have supported them most in that moment.

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The insights we generated will fuel the creation of future design concepts. Because of the activity the concepts will be tailored to empower physicians in the moments that matters most, when they are providing care to a patient.

3. We connected technologists to actual users

athenahealth combines our agile software development approach with every tool in the lean user experience book to drive the experience forward. Agile gives us the tools we need for product execution as we build the things right, and are confident we are building the right things. Customer collaboration is a pillar of the agile manifesto. Contract negotiation is an important aspect of our business but this kind of customer collaboration fuels our research and development teams to function efficiently and effectively.

Participating in design thinking activities moves client conversations from transactional, contract negotiations towards collaboration with athena technologists to bring new and lasting value to the Clinicals product and service. As an experience team, we find ways to get our scrum teams as close as possible to actual physicians. We hope you can, too!