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What Jaw Surgery Taught Me About Design


Two months ago, I decided to undergo a double jaw surgery at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital

Two months post-op, I’ve returned to work with a normal dental bite (finally!), along with many other learning points about the human anatomy - and even some on Design

Let me start off by giving credit to Mount E Novena for modelling their architecture, interior furnishings, and even facilities after a luxury hotel. The day I checked into surgery actually felt like I was going on a staycation! When retelling stories of my surgery experience to friends and family, I still catch myself saying things like, “Yeah, the hotel room was really comfortable,” or “Yeah, Mum stayed overnight with me at the hotel.” This was one way that their experience design made a subconscious positive impact on me. 

But, what about my other not-so-positive experiences?


1. Refrain from giving big data sets to the layman


We live in data-driven societies, powered by information technology that traces our digital footprints. Data is powerful when it's turned into information, and information into insight. But when it isn't, it can bring about confusion instead. 

Several weeks before my surgery, I was advised to check-in early and pre-register all my details at the hospital. As required by the Private Hospitals and Medical Clinics Act, I also underwent a financial counselling session where I was presented with an estimated hospital bill. There were several line item descriptions on it, detailing charges for accommodation, hospital and doctors’ fees, treatment and other miscellaneous items.

If the numbers were not already overwhelming enough, I was also shown two different versions of the bill - the 50% and 80% percentile costings based off all the patients that have undergone the surgery before. 



Too. Many. Estimations.


I understood the purpose of showing me these costing variances, but as the consumer, what control do I have over the eventual outcome of the final bill? Slamming this information in my face wouldn't be more effective in solving my problems. (It felt like they were just protecting their own interests.)

Checking into the hospital as a patient would already be stressful enough, so can hospitals simplify the complexity of billing and improve their financial counselling services to better care for their patients?

Truth is, your customers don’t care for large data sets. Instead, learn to use Design to contextualize data and help others solve their problems. This is another reason data analysts and designers make a good partnership!

The Bottomline: Good design should serve to simplify complex data.


2. Establish distinctive roles and communicate them clearly

When D-Day came, I checked into my ward 3 hours early. Within this short timeframe, I interacted with many hospital staff - the receptionist, the ushers, one asking me about my drug allergies, asking about height and weight, confirming administrative documents such as insurance - even one asking me about food preferences.

Post-surgery, the visits from staff members kept on coming - but strangely, they were from nurses wearing different staff uniforms from the ones I saw when I first checked in. 



Two uniform types out of the many others.


It was rather confusing for me to work out why so many people were coming to see me, what they were here to see me for and even where they were from. Turns out, these staff came from different departments, like in-patient care, the hospital pharmacy, and even those from my surgeon’s clinic. Many of whom were there to provide me with value-added services, such as post-surgery nutritional advice, counselling support, and even personally delivering my post-op medicine directly to my room! (Thank you Mount Elizabeth Novena!)

What was intended to boost my patient experience ended up backfiring, because I had lacked the knowledge of who they were and what they came for. Now that I’m enlightened, I wish that I had helped make their jobs easier, and had given a higher rating for these value-added services on their feedback form!


Avoid confusion and ambiguity by first defining roles of individual team members and communicating it to everyone. This keeps projects running without friction, avoids internal competition and allows a higher chance of making a greater impact on your consumer. This is especially important when employees are dispersed, aplenty or when several parties or vendors are involved in a project. Consider this in your next product launch, team meeting or company review!

The Bottomline: Defining and communicate roles are key factor to a project's success.

3. Balance context, intention and practicality

Upon my discharge, I was presented with an interim bill consisting of eight full A4 sized pages. Talk about detailed - the service descriptions even listed the number of tissue boxes used, amount of oxygen per hour, suction tubes, blankets, throat swabs, and even the surgical gowns worn by my surgeons!


Balance Context, Intention and practicality_Screenshot.png
 The devil is in the details


While I appreciated the transparency and need for it, my biggest gripe was the timing I was asked to sign off on this hefty bill - half awake and drugged up on antibiotics and painkillers. After I was more alert, I was angry at how mercenary the hospital was, but was left with no other choice.

This made me wonder: could hospital check-outs be more seamless? How can hospitals secure final billings efficiently, without making it confusing for patients? One thing's for sure - it's definitely not telling a patient to pay $90 for a lower body blanket and $120 for her surgeon’s blue surgical gown upon discharge!

This was, and still is an opportunity for Design - why Design? Because beyond just paying attention to aesthetics or developing physical products, Design is ultimately about making lives better and empowering others. Start by problem solving and approaching challenges from a human perspective

The Bottomline: Find solutions that balance social context, business agenda
and technical practicalities.



This blog entry came about thanks to those boring nights at the hospital (and maybe the lack of cable TV), which truly inspired many ideas on how the hospital could use Design Thinking to deliberately shape and improve their service experience. 

Design goes beyond invention. It is about the things we make, the places we shape, the illustrations we compose, the human interfaces we configure, and the processes and events we organise. It is material, visual, as well as a way of thinking. Most significantly though, it is about problem-solving with empathy, and having a real understanding of the user’s perspective.

I hope my learnings above can help you in whatever domain you’re in.


P.S: As you can tell, this post was not intended to focus on the jaw surgery, But, to those considering it, it might help for you to know that the pain from the broken jaw wasn’t half as bad as the side effects from the Augmentin prescription drug. Unlike how painful it may seem to sound, the whole experience was extremely pleasant and fascinating for me. The human body is stronger than most of us actually realise.


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