Kaiser Permanente, the largest health maintenance organization in the U.S., was developing a long-range growth plan in 2003 that would attract more patients and cut costs. Kaiser has hundreds of medical offices and hospitals and thought it might have to replace many of them with expensive next-generation buildings. It hired IDEO, the Palo Alto (Calif.) design firm, for help. Kaiser execs didn't know it then, but they were about to go on a fascinating journey of self-discovery. That's because of IDEO's novel approach. For starters, Kaiser nurses, doctors, and facilities managers teamed up with IDEO's social scientists, designers, architects, and engineers and observed patients as they made their way through their medical facilities. At times, they played the role of patient themselves.
Together they came up with some surprising insights. IDEO's architects revealed that patients and family often became annoyed well before seeing a doctor because checking in was a nightmare and waiting rooms were uncomfortable. They also showed that Kaiser's doctors and medical assistants sat too far apart. IDEO's cognitive psychologists pointed out that people, especially the young, the old, and immigrants, visit doctors with a parent or friend, but that second person is often not allowed to stay with the patient, leaving the afflicted alienated and anxious. IDEO's sociologists explained that patients hated Kaiser's examination rooms because they often had to wait alone for up to 20 minutes half-naked, with nothing to do, surrounded by threatening needles. IDEO and Kaiser concluded that the patient experience can be awful even when people leave treated and cured.