Design Thinking to Explore the Patient-Centric Future of Precision Medicine: Workshop Report & Reflection

At the end of October, the Wellcome Genome Campus Conference Centre – which is just a few hundred yards from my office at EMBL-EBI – hosted the BioData World Congress 2016.


The tagline for the event was “Harnessing the Power of Big Data in Precision Medicine” and many high profile speakers attended, including amongst others: Nicola Blackwood MP, NHS executives, directors of research institutes and big companies like IBM, a correspondent from the BBC, people from the European Commission, clinicians, tech suppliers etc.


I co-facilitated a pre-congress “design-thinking” session entitled: “Co-designing the Patient-Centric Future of Precision Medicine“, and produced sketchnotes of the talks.  As I prepared the materials before the session I wondered, what actually is “design-thinking“?  And how and why would be brainstorm such a HUGE topic using it?  Thanks to my new friend and co-facilitator, Alain Bindels, Innovation Designer at Roche (Basel, Switzerland), I now have the answer to these questions, and some new insights into the patient-centred vision for personalised medicine…

What is “design thinking“? – my perspective

For me “design thinking” is what user experience people do everyday, it’s just another name for it.  It is a design mindset.  As opposed to a linear scientific method of deriving a hypothesis and testing it then moving on to the next problem, design thinking uses an iterative approach to come to a solution, through learning, generating ideas and refining ideas in cycles.  And it is a highly collaborative approach, often using workshops of diverse people coming together to explore a complex issue or problem.  Design thinkers usually apply graphical/visual techniques to achieve the goals.

Design thinking (hopefully) leads to innovation

When we are faced with problems or challenges in a business setting, we need to craft a new solution.  Often the problems are complex, and intangible or abstract in nature.  In order to solve them we need to incorporate multiple sources of knowledge and diverse resources.  We need to experiment and visualise the problem and potential solutions.  We need to explore many possibilities and ideas, before we come up with the best one.  Prototyping designs quickly, i.e. building and playing with stuff to come to a solution, is the way to do this.  Also involving role-playing/simulating the solution can really help.  Ultimately, it isn’t design thinking it’s “design doing“.

Design thinking aims to find the sweet-spot between people, business and technology

By using design thinking we are innovating to meet the goal, and as already said, to get there we empathise, collaborate, co-create, and use a playful approach.  Tim Brown of IDEO speaks and writes about the concept of ‘Design Thinking’; see links to his TED talks below.  He says:

“Thinking like a designer can transform the way you develop products, services, processes – and even strategy.”

So with this in mind, Alain and I prepared a design-thinking agenda, where we asked the participants – who are all experts in different aspects of precision medicine- to play the role of designers at this workshop.

We used a ‘cabaret’ layout for design thinking the patient-centric future of precision medicine


In the plan, we had about 1.5 hours for the workshop, so we chose to have small breakout groups, each with a chairperson, who was also a speaker about a topic in precision medicine topic during the plenary sessions of the agenda.  We aimed for six groups, but we had three larger groups on the day.

The participants produced visions for the future of patient-centred precision medicine in three areas

Challenge 1: Opportunities for personalised medicine in the age of Big Data – how can we empower clinicians and patients?

Dr. Hilary Burton (Director of P.H.G. Foundation)
Natalie Banner (Policy Advisor, The Wellcome Trust)

The ideas and recommendations the team came up with:

  • we should be using the media to get the message about personalised medicine out there.  For example, there should be a genomics and personalised-medicine related story line in a big UK soap opera like “Coronation Street” or “The Archers”
  • we should avoid the ‘usual people’, and rather inform people who are not highly educated, and do not have resources.
  • apply stories and personal journeys about using precision medicine, make sure they include how clinicians were involved in the story

Challenge 2: How can we exploit pre-competitive collaborations for precision medicine?

Karsten Quast (Principal Scientist Computational Biology, Boeringer Ingelheim)

The ideas and recommendations the team came up with:

  • We must define what is “pre-competitive” and what is not.  We suggest that all work towards “understanding the disease” is pre-competitive activity
  • For pre-competitive projects to succeed in precision medicine, we must foster collaboration.  A sustainable infrastructure is required to support the outputs.  We must share the resulting data, and apply data standards and federation
  • Funding must be secured
  • A legal entity is needed for the project accountability e.g. ‘middleman organisation’ such as ELIXIR
  • We must avoid waste of resources in pre-competitive projects
Pre-competitive projects

Challenge 3: What about precision medicine for other diseases, not just oncology?


The ideas and recommendations the team came up with:

  • Precision medicine is not just about oncology, we should consider other high impact diseases such as viral infections, ‘super bugs’/ pathogens, rare diseases, and chronic diseases.
  • Oncology uses just one ‘omics technology, but we suggest looking at high impact, high value strategies via “flagship projects”
  • We need new taxonomies for better mapping of phenotypes using molecular basis, such as via machine learning
  • Diabetes is a low impact example


What were the steps in the workshop to get us there?

We used the format of elaboration then consolidation of ideas.  In the opening phase of the session Alain and I gave a facilitation tips talk and explained the “rules of the game” for the brainstorming.  Then we briefed the chairperson of each team regarding the format of the session


The “Thought-Wall” provided some visual inspiration.  For this we created a mural of precision medicine-related visuals at the back of the room.  Participants perused the wall whilst we briefed the chair-people.  The images were taken from NHS reports (such as bringing lean to life, improvement guide, and design for patient safety), posters, participants’ leaflets and business cards, and sketchnotes from the presentations.



Each chairperson presented a mini pitch on why their topic was important for the future success of precision medicine, and each posed a provocative question around the topic as a fire-starter.  Using this information, the participants could decide which team they wanted to join for the brainstorming.  Once they had chosen a topic table and introduced themselves to each other, we could begin.

In the exploring phase we asked team members to interview each other in pairs about the topic, using post-its to note down key points.  The chairperson then collected the ideas and opened out the discussion to the group.  We provided a matrix to speed up the noting down of ideas.


To conclude, using a flip chart ideas were collated and organised by the chairperson, and a team spokesperson presented back the team’s best idea.  Participants asked questions and provided comments on the idea.

Take home messages and summing up

By using a design-thinking methodology we were able to collaboratively derive new ideas in a short time to address challenges faced in precision medicine.  The participants were diverse and had not met before.  Our success and exploration of the issues shows that there is much work to do to get to the reality of precision medicine in the clinic.  Surely to create innovative solutions to complex problems such as those in precision medicine and beyond, we must look to design-thinking-style approaches.  Only this way can we connect knowledge, experience, technology and business opportunity together, in one place and time.  And the benefit of doing this? Ultimately it’s the patient – it’s potentially you and me!


  • Alain Bindel of F.Hoffman-La Roche Ltd for working together to “design think” and run the pre-conference and congress workshops.  Alain is part of the Precision Medicine Group in the Basel Area, a local Swiss-based network
  • Edward Granville of Terrapin Conferences for inviting me to join the congress
  • Nick Skinner of Poppyfish People Development Ltd for the material I adapted for the workshop facilitation tips presentation.
  • Joseph Rossetto of EMBL-EBI for conversations about service design and design-thinking
  • Mary Todd Bergman of EMBL-EBI for copy editing this post

Links on Precision Medicine

Precision Medicine Group in the Basel Area

Alain Bindels’ blog post of the Biodata Congress 2016

BioData World Congress Website

Jenny’s sketchnotes from the pre-conference workshop for BioData World Congress 2016 [on Flickr]

Links on Design Thinking

Tips on Workshop Facilitation

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Tim Brown TED Talks:

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