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Designing with Empathy

One of the biggest problems facing health care today has nothing to do with care and everything to do with access. Imagine having to wait two hours for a ride to the hospital or missing an important doctor visit due to transportation barriers. 

Hitch Health, a Minneapolis-based healthcare tech startup, partners with Lyft to provide rides to underserved populations. Together they mitigate the issue of missed medical appointments due to a lack of reliable transportation. And they’ve succeeded so far with one simple action: putting patients first.

This human-centered approach is also a reflection of the teachings at St. Thomas. Students are encouraged to lead, work and serve with the skill and empathy vital to creating a better world. In other words, advancing the common good.

Integrating the whole person approach

“One of the knocks on the American health care system right now is that it’s too business focused,” said Dan McLaughlin, faculty member at Opus College of Business. “So we’re teaching healthcare leaders to look beyond the traditional delivery system and get to the heart of the real-life challenges of many patients.”

St. Thomas regularly uses case studies like Hitch Health as a teaching tool in the classroom. “We’re big on innovation and particularly human-centered design,” said McLaughlin. “It's a great case study to illustrate both advanced technology and the whole person approach in our health care classes.”

The Hitch Health case study was recently accepted for publication at Ivey Business School. A collaborative effort between St. Thomas, Hennepin County Medical Center and United Healthcare, the case illustrates the focus on the future of digital health. St. Thomas provided advice to Hitch Health early on in their start-up phase.

“Hitch Health has connected students with a part of the health care system that many probably didn’t know about,” said McLaughlin. “Understanding unique cultural barriers within communities can be a revelation to students.”

Human-centered teaching also encourages St. Thomas students to think beyond a single solution. How else can technology be harnessed to enact more change for the common good?

Understanding Human Centered Design

At its core, HCD prioritizes empathy for the end-user. It focuses on people's problems, goals, needs, thinking, emotions and behavior in order to come up with effective design solutions to those problems.

Susan Jepson, MPH, BSN and co-founder of Hitch Health, has used it to better understand the patients who would use the app at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC). 

As she explains, “We’d ride on the bus with patients. If they had a medical appointment we’d take a taxi, Metro Mobility, or other vehicles. We experience first-hand what they deal with the health care system… waiting in line, being late for their appointment.”

Hitch Health is the only non-emergency healthcare transportation company with a proprietary technology that identifies patients who may benefit from a free ride to-and-from a clinic, hospital or doctor’s office. The patent-pending software automatically sends patients SMS texts to offer the ride.

Their integrated software with Lyft removes barriers such as the need for a smartphone, an app, or a credit card that stand in the way of many underserved populations.