Design contributes to better healthcare  

Can industrial designers contribute to future-proofing healthcare? Can sophisticated design help keep the patient afloat in a healthcare system under severe pressure? Prof. Judith Rietjens believes so and will investigate the issue in the coming years.  

Photo of Judith Rietjens by Geisje van der Linden.

Rietjens will be officially appointed Jan. 26, 2023, as professor of “Design for Public Health” at two institutes: TU Delft’s Faculty of Industrial Design and Erasmus MC’s Department of Public Health. Together with a whole army of designers, scientific researchers, healthcare professionals and patients, she will try to create a blueprint for a new healthcare system. Both in the Netherlands and in Europe.  


Healthcare faces major challenges across Europe. With an ageing population and ever-improving therapies, millions of people are becoming long-term patients. On the other hand, fewer people are choosing to work in healthcare. Staff shortages are already acute. If nothing changes, by 2040, one out of four people will have to work in healthcare to be able to help every patient.  

‘More and more self-direction is expected from patients. But my research shows that for many people, this is overly complicated. Especially for people who are incurably ill. Hospital visits, treatments, dealing with side effects, understanding complex information, re-relating to work and relationships,’ Rietjens outlines. ‘Research shows that half of patients eventually can no longer cope with this.’  

And – oh irony – innovations in health care, think patient portals and home monitoring, do not always make it easier, Rietjens knows. Especially if these innovations are not well designed.  

Out of place  

Also, a significant proportion of people with advanced illnesses receive potentially inappropriate treatment. ‘Often because no conversation has been held with people about the consequences of treatments and whether they want them at a stage when the quality of life is so important.’  

Meanwhile, all sorts of new practices have made their way into health care: value-based healthcare, advance care planning and shared decision-making. This means that treatment should be aligned to the person who must undergo it. What does the person actually want to achieve through treatment? And what knowledge and experience does the person bring to the table, starting with knowledge about their own body?  

But in the current healthcare system, every 15 minutes must be accounted for, and healthcare professionals are often overworked. In that case, the conversations necessary for these new practices tend to slip through. ‘Healthcare has become a complex system in which the individual can only oversee and control a very small part,’ says Rietjens.  


The good news is that all kinds of innovative ‘tools’ have emerged, such as Metro Mapping, which plots a patient’s care path during treatment like a metro line with stations where decisions need to be made, and thus becomes easier to grasp.  

Rietjens is one of the leads of a major European project, 4D PICTURE, in which she and a large team of colleagues are further exploring and implementing  Metro Mapping. The project is also developing tools that leverage large amounts of data. These tools are aimed at supporting shared decision-making. For example, to better understand treatment effects or to support the conversation about a sensitive topic such as cancer.  

‘These are valuable tools that could make healthcare more efficient and effective. But to do them justice, we have to go back to the drawing board with the fundamentals of healthcare. We need to redesign the foundations,’ Rietjens clarified.  


How can smart design help with that? ‘Designers have a number of superpowers,’ she says. ‘They are trained to build bridges from today’s problems to more desirable situations in the future. You often think of a concrete, tangible device or tool. But they are also good at coming up with information technology solutions, or new ways of working together or more appropriate care pathways,’ Rietjens says.  

‘The great thing is that designers commonly come up with a prototype, and that they keep investigating whether that direction works and is manageable.’   


Not only healthcare is heading toward serious problems. Other major issues need our attention too. One example is the transition to a sustainable society.  

‘In times of scarcity in healthcare, when asking whether care is appropriate, we must not only ask whether the care aligns with the wishes and preferences of the patient but also what the impact of that care is on, for example, the climate or staffing. I look forward to working on this in the coming years with a lot of the disciplines involved.  

Registration and live stream  

Judith Rietjens’ inaugural speech, titled “The Person Formerly Known As Patient,” is Jan. 26, 2024, at 3 p.m. in TU Delft’s auditorium.  

Registration is available here. You can attend via a live stream. 

This article was originally published on Amazing Erasmus MC.