Illustration courtesy of Samantha Dempsey

Illustrations/image courtesy of Samantha Dempsey

The summer I spent as an experimental illustrator at the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation (CFI) in Rochester, Minnesota, followed none of the predictions I’d made about how a Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) student, science enthusiast and born-and-bred new Englander would spend her summer. First of all, I never expected to spend so much time around so much corn. Second, I never knew that the radical collaborations happening at the CFI could exist beyond my daydreams. The CFI is a multidisciplinary team of designers and healthcare providers who collaborate and ask difficult questions to revolutionize healthcare. For one summer, I had the opportunity to join this brilliant team and revolutionize my own understanding of design.

My Minnesotan adventure began when I was awarded a Maharam STEAM fellowship, which supports RISD students who propose a unique internship with a government agency or nonprofit organization to explore how art and design can effect change in policy and practice. As a senior in illustration at RISD, this fellowship was my key into a strange new world of social innovation.

With the support of my fellowship, I arrived at the CFI and began exploring. I started collaborating with the practice Redesign team, in which I created medical illustrations embedded in experimental education videos. I next worked with the Community Health Transformation team to develop a method of real-time doctor/patient conversation capture to facilitate shared understanding of primary care visits. In my third project, I completed a series of wordless comics illustrating patient stories that communicated an experimental Care Team approach. Next, I created an animation for the Center for Individualized Medicine to visually explain the complexity of exome sequencing, while still keeping the patient experience at the forefront of the conversation.

These collaborations altered my understanding of what it means to be a “designer,” but my final project allowed me to explore the unique value of an illustrator within a design community. Working closely with Lorna Ross, the inspirational design manager of the CFI, I proposed, designed and executed my own experiment based on two assumptions: 1) patient stories have value and 2) in order to reveal that value, we must collect these stories. I wanted to discover the aspects of patient life that normal methods of collecting data failed to reveal. Designers working in a data-driven environment like the Clinic are encouraged to present their findings in measurable terms. However, there are parts of the patient experience that can’t be quantified. How do you measure the difference between when a patient trusts her surgeon and when she doesn’t? I wanted to reveal the untapped, non-metric wealth of information within patient stories and give others a way to record it.

I began interviewing patients without an agenda, listening to whatever stories they wanted to tell. Once patients understood that there was someone who wanted to listen, their stories came pouring out. This free exploration revealed things which I would never have known to ask about.

The process involved patients thinking, talking and drawing about their experiences in a new way. Most people store stories linearly and verbally. I needed to get them to think differently so we could avoid the same old, prepackaged narratives, which wouldn’t provide us with any new information. When patients began telling their narratives visually, they began to make new connections within old stories. Using visuals allowed one woman to reveal how her doctor’s judgment of her religious beliefs affected her ability to seek care. Both the patient and I learned something from this kind of retelling.

My colleagues on the design team asked me to create kits that would allow other groups at Mayo to collect visual patient narratives. The kits combine placemat-like maps of the human body, concentric circles describing influence and word association charts on which patients draw directly. They also contain image dice, symbol cards, stickers and a how-to work- book. The CFI currently uses the kit to introduce design thinking to providers and allow resident designers to gather new kinds of patient data, and Mayo medical students also use the kit to comprehend the larger context of patient care. The Center for the Humanities in Medicine uses the kit to engage patients in therapeutic visual storytelling and create a library of patient stories to benefit future members of the clinic.

The Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation is something far bigger than any single designer, provider or illustrator. It’s a tangled web of active thinkers who ask questions that may not have answers. I’ve learned from them that design isn’t just part of the solution. Design changes how we see the problem.