Helix Centre: designs for lifesaving

Royal College of Art and Imperial partner in ‘high-impact’ hub

A new centre will bring the principles of design into the heart of a leading hospital to create a global research hub for “frugal innovation and high-impact, low-cost design”.

A collaboration between the Royal College of Art and the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London, the Helix Centre for Design and Innovation in Healthcare – soon to open at St Mary’s Hospital in London’s Paddington – is being launched at the House of Lords on 28 November.

The two institutions have already worked together on a number of projects, such as the redesign of London’s ambulances. And the RCA has nearly 15 years of experience in “designing out medical error” through its Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design.

Yet this is the first time, according to Paul Thompson, principal investigator at Helix and rector of the RCA, that such a “research unit has been based in a clinical context”.

Design can mean many different things in the medical context, explained Dr Thompson – “physical and digital, high-tech and low-tech”. It includes equipment such as a hospital trolley now being developed that includes “a secure tabletop that makes it as easy as possible for nurses to complete handover notes…rather than forcing them to balance on a mattress with a biro or write against the wall”, he said.

Similar techniques can also be applied to streamlining the design of IT systems, ensuring that various data points are connected effectively.

Doctors and even patients are likely to generate a lot of the questions for the Helix researchers to investigate, given that they often have direct experience of equipment or procedures that are not fit for purpose.

Dr Thompson cited the example of used needles, where researchers have been asked “to develop a sponge or something similar where the needles can be disposed of without contaminating the beds. It’s all about designing in patient safety and designing out medical error.”

“Design never came into the curriculum when I was at medical school,” admitted fellow principal investigator Baron Darzi of Denham, Paul Hamlyn chair of surgery at Imperial, “yet it has a huge amount to contribute in improving the pathway of care, whether through technology or processes.”


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