Brian O'Keefe (L), deputy editor, Fortune, talks to Sean Carney, chief design officer of Royal Philips, at the Brainstorm Design Conference in Singapore on Mar. 6, 2018
Photograph by Stefen Chow for Fortune
By Debbie Yong
March 6, 2018

Good design has the power to transform healthcare, both inside and outside the hospital, according to Royal Philips’ chief design officer Sean Carney.

“It’s a huge shift for Philips,” said Carney on Tuesday, speaking to Fortune’s deputy editor Brian O’Keefe at the Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore. “We’ve been in consumer electronics and lighting, but now we’re operating in the field that we call health tech. We thought that if we could leverage the credibility we have with consumers in their homes, we could drive better outcomes for patients.”

Carney joined Philips in 2011 from Hewlett Packard, where he was group director of experience design and, before that, a design director at Electrolux. At Philips, Europe’s largest electronics maker, he leads a team of more than 500 designers across 19 studios to integrate design across the company’s many verticals, from the production of flat-screen televisions or electric toothbrushes to the many research teams dedicated to refining life-saving health equipment used in hospitals worldwide.

The healthcare transformation services unit, which examines clinical pathways, and designs entire hospitals from the ground up, comprises over 150 former healthcare management consultants from firms such as BCG and McKinsey. Designers sit on the management teams of every one of the company’s business units.

“We co-create things together. There is no such thing as a free standing design team anymore. Device engineers, software designers and user interaction designers sit together as part of an agile team,” says Carney.

Steering the design function at a global design powerhouse often compared to the likes of Apple and BMW may seem like a plum role, but it hasn’t always been easy: in 2012, shortly after Carney came on board, Philips posted a fourth-quarter net loss of 160 million euros ($195.7 million) compared to a profit of 465 million euros ($568.5 million) a year earlier, after a slow-down in Europe hurt its lighting and healthcare divisions as consumers and governments cut their budgets.

But it didn’t deter the company from continuing to invest in design, where it has now made rapid strides.

“Healthcare today is a misnomer,” says Carney, explaining the company’s approach. “Healthcare is now based around sick care. We wait for people to get ill and then fix them. That’s not a sustainable model if healthcare is to scale to met the needs of our growing population. We have to help people before they get sick and we have to treat the illness.”

Philips’ medical devices, such as MRI and CT scanner machines, are connected to their cloud servers, which contain over 23 petabytes of data, tracking over 250 million patients around the world.

“Technology allows us to interrogate that data and do critical diagnostic support at the point of care,” says Carney. “It is enabling a lot of new experiences but our role as designers is to make that technology usable.”

Last year, the Philips Design team created an augmented reality surgical navigation system, which fuses images of a patient, captured via CT and MRI scans and ultrasounds, for a doctor to reference via augmented reality imaging while at the operating table. Says Carney: “By making the patient’s skin virtually invisible, doctors can do all the surgical planning before going into the operating theater and carry out minimally invasive keyhole surgery with less problems.”

Another recent project was an ultrasound imaging app, designed for midwives and healthcare practitioners serving remote villages in Indonesia with high infant mortality rates to conduct diagnostic checks via a simple transponder and an Android mobile phone.

Thanks to the timely identification of at-risk mothers, there were zero maternal deaths during the pilot, according to Carney. “This is where design starts to feel meaningful—when you’re literally saving babies.”

He concluded: “Design thinking will only live if you’re doing—rapidly prototyping, sketching, enabling people to cocreate together—that’s where the real power of design thinking is unlocked. But it is still important to respect the craft of design: if it isn’t beautiful or has a usable interface that creates stickiness, then design thinking amounts to very little.”

For more coverage of Brainstorm Design, click here.

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