Product design high on agenda of NHS initiative

The National Health Service has appointed a product design manager for what is being touted as the ‘biggest innovation project’ of its kind in the public health sector.

The Sandwell Inclusive Design Partnership, which involves three primary care trusts near Birmingham and is funded to the tune of £350 000 under the NHS’s health action zone initiative, has appointed Rob Chesters as product design manager. Chesters takes over from project leader Chris Ramsden, a vice-president of the Chartered Society of Designers, in the autumn.

Now in the second of a three-year programme, the focus of the scheme is improving quality of life for the elderly and people with disabilities through ‘user-centred inclusive design’.

Ramsden, a consultant clinical scientist and director of the scheme, says it is the ‘biggest [design] innovation project’ in the NHS. To date, he has concentrated on concept development and ‘setting up the background’ in terms of bringing together users, clinicians and ‘service providers’, he says. But with Chesters on board, the outcome of this work is nearing the manufacturing stage.

Chesters, formerly a researcher at the University of Central England’s Centre for Product Design Information, says his role is a ‘rarity’ within the NHS and his aim is to provide better co-ordination for the design process.

‘There’s a lot of information [held by] healthcare professionals, not to mention patients themselves, that product manufacturers aren’t addressing. I can act as a portal, in effect, for their thoughts and ideas. Ultimately, we hope to be able to prove a model of inclusive design, that may be broadly replicable,’ he says.

Ramsden adds, ‘For consultancies, the market opportunity within the NHS is huge – £7.5bn is spent on product design each year, but sadly most of this is done abroad. It’s often difficult for [outside designers] to get access to what the problems really are and NHS purchasers tend to buy what they have always bought in the past.’

He hopes that the Sandwell initiative will help to create an ‘infrastructure for innovation’ at a time when the Department of Health wants to encourage risk-taking and a more multidisciplinary approach to commissioning design.

Initially, Chesters will be looking at ‘home-related, assisted products’ that are used on a short-term basis by patients following their discharge from hospital. A more contemporary design approach to such devices can help to tackle the problems of ‘social exclusion’, he suggests.

Chesters adds, ‘Visual aesthetics, for example, have never been properly addressed. The elderly and people with disabilities don’t feel fully involved in society partly because the products they use aren’t addressing their environments. The design needs to be closer to their wants and desires.’

Among the product ideas to have been advanced so far is a carbon-fibre walking frame, which borrows technology used in the manufacture of golf-clubs, developed to concept stage by Probe Design Solutions.

A number of student bursaries are also available.

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