Using Design Thinking to Improve Mental Health Care

January 30, 2019
J. Andrew Chacko

J. Andrew Chacko, MD, MSE, FAPA, who has trained and worked as an officer in the US Navy, as an engineer, and most recently as a psychiatrist, sees problems everywhere. It’s a gift.

“I am at my core a designer, and part of the wiring of being a designer is being inherently discontent,” he said. “It has made me look at medicine with very different eyes and ask ‘how can we make it better?’ ”

Thankfully, Dr. Chacko—a Stanford-trained engineer/artist who went to medical school after discovering not all physicians were exactly open to innovation ideas from industry outsiders—has never been one to stay mired in the status quo. During his upcoming featured session at Elevate by Psych Congress Dr. Chacko will instruct his fellow mental health care providers in design thinking, a process widely used in the design industry to problem-solve creatively and effectively.

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Design thinking, he said, ultimately has the power to bring about real transformation in health care.

“There's a proverb: Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for life,” said Dr. Chacko, who in addition to working as a medical innovation and design consultant runs a private practice in San Francisco, California. “If I can teach people to use design thinking and leadership skills, then everyone can be out there, everyone can become a problem solver, everyone can become a critical pair of eyes looking for better ways to deliver health care.”

Dr. Chacko isn’t talking about just high-profile physicians with funding, connections, and confident expectations. In-the-trenches clinicians, too, can approach problems with the creativity and persistence necessary to bring about change. Consider the case of Samuel Pierpont Langley vs the Wright Brothers, he suggested.

“Langley was the surefire bet for someone who was going to figure out flight. He was the country’s leading expert in aeronautics and was given large sums of money and grants to basically invent the airplane. It got to the point where the New York Times was following him around and reporting on his progress,” Dr. Chacko said. “Meanwhile, off in the far corner of Kitty Hawk, you have these bicycle mechanics who on weekends were cobbling together how a plane might work. They had a passion for it. And we know who won.”

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Dr. Chacko said his Elevate session will incorporate practical instruction, a fair amount of interaction, and plenty of fun.

“I want to get attendees to play,” he said. “As mental health professionals, we don’t play enough. It’s all serious. But when you have fun, you can engage your whole brain and come up with new solutions. You bring different energy into problem solving and even patient care.

“I want providers to leave more inspired, empowered, and refreshed. I want them to have a good time and maybe make some great contacts in the process.”

Elevate will take place in Boston, Massachusetts, March 8-10, 2019. Learn more about the conference here.

—Jolynn Tumolo