Designing a better medication management system
December 3, 2012

Amanda Somers and other students in Glen Hougan's class presented their research at the Our Future is Aging: Current Research on Knowledge, Practice and Policy conference recently.
The design students in Glen Hougan’s Collaborative Design class were well versed in statistics. They knew that there were some 5.1 million seniors living in Canada, and of that total, a large majority were medication users: 76 per cent living in private households, and 97 per cent living in health-care institutions.

Further, of seniors taking medications, many of them (more than half of seniors in institutions, and 13 per cent of those in private homes) were taking multiple medications for a variety of ailments.

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The students were charged with creating information graphics to visualize a Statistics Canada report and illustrate how seniors with several prescriptions were more likely to have adverse reactions. Still, the stats really didn’t hit home until the students met with seniors and saw for themselves the methods devised to take their medications.

Prof. Hougan, a research fellow with the Centre for Innovation at the Mayo Clinic, calls it the “deep dive.” The assignment was to observe the seniors in their own homes and then document their routines graphically.

“This is the point where we’ve done the research, but then he wants us in the actual environment so that we can truly understand our clients,” says Deidre Thibault, a senior design student from St. Margaret’s Bay. (See: Deidre's information graphic - PDF)

Adds her classmate Amanda Somers, a Dartmouth resident: “You really need to do what they do to understand.”

Organized in pairs, the students met with one of six seniors associated with Spencer House, a community centre for older adults. And what they found out is that for each of the six seniors they encountered, there were six different systems for managing medications—and no one was using a medicine cabinet.

The problems faced by the seniors they met were as unique as each individual: medications that had to be taken at different times by someone in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease; bottles that were hard for arthritic hands to open and with printing too small to read clearly; prescriptions that had to be renewed in person and required regular trips to the doctor’s office and the pharmacy. Medications were kept in different places—in the kitchen, in the laundry room, by a favorite chair in the living room in front of the TV—and in different storage containers—candy jars, pill minders and trays.

One of the seniors kept his pills on a shelf with his cleaning supplies in the laundry room opposite his bedroom, and had a rod handy to retrieve pills when they’d inevitably roll under the washing machine. Another stored her six medications in various places throughout her apartment—in the kitchen, on her nightstand in the bedroom and beside the chair where she did her knitting.

“Meeting with the seniors was such an eye-opener for the students,” says Prof. Hougan, who with a research focus on design and aging, was appointed the first-ever Sun Life Financial Chair in Design and Aging in 2010. He had the students share their research in graphics and storyboards at the Our Future is Aging: Current Research on Knowledge, Practice and Policy conference hosted recently by Mount Saint Vincent University’s Nova Scotia Centre for Aging.

The final part of the assignment is, having digested the problems and issues of medication management, to design a better experience. The students will present their designs on the last day of class and be linked to the Mayo Clinic over Skype.

“In doing this, you realize that there are real people represented by statistics,” says design student Caelin Williams, from Kingston, Ont. “Design gives you so much to think about. There’s a broad range of experience to tap into and, ultimately, that will change and make the designs we come up with so much better.”

“It just shows that design affects our life so much—it’s not just brochures and websites,” adds Deidre. “The possibilities of what design can do are really endless.”