Jan, 2021 by Philips Healthcare
Reading time: 3-4 minutes

Speaking up for health equity: a Philips designer sparks a new initiative in the quest for more inclusive design

Woman hoping her significant other makes it through covit-19

COVID-19 has cast a harsh light on long-standing healthcare disparities affecting underserved and vulnerable populations in the United States. During the pandemic, African Americans have been nearly twice as likely, and Native American and Hispanics more than twice as likely, to die from COVID-19 as their white peers.1


When COVID-19 hit, Kelly Benton had been a part of the Philips Experience Design team for Sleep and Respiratory Care in Pittsburgh for three years, working on end-to-end service solutions. She saw the tremendous work Philips undertook to support customers' urgent needs – and she also saw the disproportionate impact the pandemic was having on historically underserved communities. This, paired with the crisis going on within the Black Lives Matter movement and the urge to be bold and advocate for needed change, is what inspired her to advocate for this work.

I've had relatives who passed from COVID-19; family members who've had COVID-19. Seeing how much of an impact was being made on communities of color, and being a person of color myself, it shook me in a way I couldn’t even understand."

Kelly Benton, Service Designer, Philips Experience Design

She thought about the influence Philips could have in disrupting these disparities.


Kelly began ideating with her Experience Design colleagues about how the work Philips was doing to combat COVID-19 could be extended to underserved communities, and what Philips could do to address the long-standing systemic inequities in access to healthcare for Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) in the United States.


She reached out to her Experience Design leadership team, including Sean Carney, Chief Design Officer, which sparked important conversations about the need to address the higher prevalence of COVID-19 among BIPOC communities and overall disparities in equitable care.

Patient talking with doctor

Now, Kelly's call for action has evolved into a research project that’s first of its kind within Philips Experience Design innovation programs, and specifically Access to Care for the Underserved. These design activities focus on capabilities development, insights and tools creation that support the Philips goal of improving access to care for 400 million people per year in underserved communities by 2030 (part of their overall commitment to improve the health and well-being of 2.5 billion people per year in the same time frame).

A design team’s mission: finding the missing voices and revealing the layers of health disparities

Designing for inclusion often begins with asking questions about whose voices are missing from the design process and who might be excluded from the solution.2 When it comes to healthcare disparities, there is a vast opportunity and need to explore the lives of those who are marginalized. Talking to people directly affected by health disparities reveals vital nuances. And capturing a range of perspectives allows for a range of voices to be heard.


Kelly's initial ideation group has coalesced into a team of five, including Samiah Dunac, Anna Kahn, Bianca Müller and Michelle Agudera, and they started their work in just this way: by asking questions. The team has only grown larger as they continue leveraging support and passion for the subject from stakeholders throughout the organization.


"We're exploring how we can capture more insights about the experiences of people of color, and how Philips can better support communities that aren't getting relevant care due to mistrust, social determinants of care, inconsistent access to health insurance, biases, lower income and other factors," Kelly said.


"What we're doing is challenging common perceptions, starting with barriers to care, and specifically, communities that are in the most dire shape, thereby paving the way to increase equitable access for all," Samiah said.

Kelly benton team

Samiah talks about how Philips has many innovations, products and services that can be leveraged toward the aim of disrupting health disparities. But solutions need to be worked through alongside the individual community and structured in a way that will really help them.


In their approach to research, the team tries to:


  • Be bold – speaking out about the changes they see


  • Be curious – taking a humble approach and learning more before tackling a problem


  • Be the advocate – talking directly to people within these vulnerable populations and including them within the research process


Because they dive deep to discover what holds up the structure of our beliefs and systems, design teams are uniquely positioned to help disrupt health disparities and create a new, more equitable system. Part of their design process is practicing radical empathy, as Kelly explains: “Radical empathy is evolving your mindset based on the evolving needs of the world. So, as we’re seeing communities change, we need to be cognizant of that change and take action toward designing and implementing more holistic solutions based off of understood needs.”

Understanding the past to build a better future

As Kelly and her team have discovered in their research, the problem of racial inequities in healthcare is vast and deeply embedded in historical context. From experiments on Black female slaves in the 1800s to redlining to pervasive myths about the ability for Black patients to better tolerate pain, these examples continue to contribute to healthcare inequities today.

AEC structural inequities timeline

photography sourced from https://unsplash.com/license


Looking forward, COVID-19 is the first care pathway that Kelly and the team is exploring, identifying a range of disparities along this pathway to investigate further in conversations with patients and clinicians, including prevalence of comorbidities, language barriers, levels of mistrust due to implicit and explicit biases, and more. They hope to:


  • Gain contextual insights that will help provide more in-depth background to inform field, ethnographic and user research when working with BIPOC communities;


  • Bring additional authenticity toward personas and archetypes;


  • Open up avenues to source more holistic data sets used in clinical research and software.


The research will look at making design solutions and processes more inclusive. Ultimately, the end goal is to lead a pilot design project in the U.S. that's geared toward making life better for the most vulnerable ethnic populations.

We want to see better overall health outcomes for patients and their clinical relationships, especially since at the moment the healthcare landscape isn't built for Black and brown people. Our goal is to find those gaps and see how Philips can best leverage our current capabilities to help create more equitable and accessible solutions for all populations.”

Kelly Benton, Service Designer, Philips Experience Design

Samiah describes this initiative as a spark for opening up design thinking to be more inclusive overall. “As designers, we are working for the benefit of our communities, and we want to expand our work. We know there are problems and we personally want to see things get better, as does our company.”

Joining a history of innovation

Kelly and her team are inspired by Philips 130-year history of innovation and by the world of human-centered, inclusive design. They point out well-known examples of designing for those who were excluded: remote controls were originally designed for people who had limited mobility, e-mail was commercialized by a man with a hearing impairment and, more recently, a gaming system’s accessible controller enabled kids with disabilities to fully play and enjoy video games.3


“Philips has a history in terms of innovation. There were products that were created simply because there was a need that no one else had realized,” said Samiah. “And that is an important point for any company – because if you always think and do for people who are privileged and have everything, you will never come to innovation. Designing for the excluded is innovation that benefits all.” 


Simona Rocchi is Senior Director, Design for Innovation and Sustainability and creative lead for the Access to Care workstream in Philips Experience Design. She said projects like Kelly's provide learnings and recommendations for discussion with business stakeholders throughout Philips.


"We don't want to leave anyone behind to fulfill our company 'purpose,' which means we need to look at access to care challenges from multiple angles; equitable care is certainly one key component to strengthening our impact. This project that Kelly's leading can trigger a dialogue with the businesses for new solutions development, and learnings that can guide the establishment of more inclusive design processes," Simona said.


Kelly is glad her voice, along with the voices of the community, is being heard. She said the positive reaction to her initial proposal has been humbling as well as inspiring. Throughout Philips, Kelly’s initiative is motivating others to continue to speak up for health equity. Philips employees are not only involved with the movement in different ways, they are part of a growing community of advocates partnering and working together toward solving the problem of healthcare inequality. 

Philips broward infusion center

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