UT launches new institute to blend health care, design

Partnership between medical school, fine arts aimed at creating innovation for region’s health care system.

Long before the Dell Medical School got its name — as Travis County taxpayers mulled a significant property tax increase that would indirectly finance its operations — proponents of the idea promised an institution that would transform the delivery of health care in Central Texas.

A key driver of that transformation, if it does occur, is now in place.

The medical school and the University of Texas’ College of Fine Arts have partnered on a new Design Institute for Health, a joint program that’s unique in academia and has drawn two of the country’s top design experts to lead it.

The institute, to be announced Monday morning during a news conference at the Contemporary Austin, will bring a design-thinking approach to everything from new medical devices to a re-imagined structure for the region’s health care system, officials said.

“It is, I think, a very promising way … to help us take a big step back and come up with solutions that really meet people’s needs, not our expectations of their needs,” said Clay Johnston, dean of the UT medical school.

From the outset, the program will be supported primarily by the medical school, he said. The institute’s budget has yet to be determined, but it will fund not only design education and research, but also various hands-on consulting and development projects with the Central Texas health care system.

As those new programs and services emerge, Johnston said, the hope is the institute will become self-funding.

“If we come up with great solutions to improve health and lower costs … those are extremely valuable to society,” he said. “We need to make sure we can capture some of that so we can grow the system and speed up the innovations.”

Stacey Chang and Beto Lopez will lead the institute and hold joint positions with the college of fine arts and the medical school. Johnston recruited both from Ideo, the Palo Alto-based design firm that came up with Apple’s first computer mouse and pioneered the concept of a folding laptop computer.

Chang was managing director of Ideo’s health and wellness division. Lopez, a UT grad, was the head of the firm’s systems design. They will add designers to their faculty and project staff in the coming months and years.

Most people in health care are “looking at what you can buy rather than what you can create,” Chang said. “That creativity, people in health care have had that beaten out of them for the most part. … They accept the status quo for what it is and do their best to work around it.”

The interdisciplinary structure of the institute is not uncommon in academia. However, it isn’t as widely employed in science, medicine and research as in other schools, said Robert Langer, head of the renowned Langer Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Yet that environment often sparks new ways of thinking about a problem, he said, and in turn generates fundamentally new discoveries that serve as platforms for subsequent technologies and ideas.

“The key thing is (an interdisciplinary lab) exposes you, in a very direct way, to brand new ideas and brand new ways of thinking,” Langer said Friday. “The point is, if you come in with a fresh outlook and a totally different background, you just approach problems differently.”

That has been a key cog in Johnston’s plans for the medical school from the outset, and he said he hopes to embody that in the program and throughout the Central Texas health care system as a whole.

“Not only can we learn” from other experts at UT and beyond, he said, “we need to learn from them to come up with better solutions for health problems.”

Johnston’s willingness to work closely with other divisions of the university has soothed some fears that the medical school would siphon scarce resources away from other programs, said Doug Dempster, dean of the UT College of Fine Arts.

“This is linking our colleges in the most fundamental possible way,” Dempster said. “We’ve gone from fear to complete exuberance.”

Johnston also worked with Ideo before taking the reins at the UT medical school about a year ago. That existing relationship helped Johnston entice Chang and Lopez, but the true deal-closer was the blank slate that the new medical school brings to medical education and regional health care delivery.

“That allowed us to attract the true worldwide leaders in health care design to quit their lucrative jobs and come get a pay cut and work in a place where they really feel like they can make a difference,” Johnston said.

In a telephone interview from California, Chang and Lopez concurred. The twin ideas of designing a system from the ground up — and then putting that into practice through the medical school’s partnerships throughout the Austin health care ecosystem — was too good an opportunity to pass up, they said.

“We’ve been working in and around health care for quite some time and it’s so incredibly rare to begin to design something from scratch,” Lopez said. “So much of what we’re asked to do is fix what’s wrong (with an existing system). Now we can look at what people want to have and start from there.”

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