Design thinking techniques help Physician Assistant Studies students in ‘Crucial Conversations’

Physician Assistant Studies students practice using design thinkin techniques, at their annual workshop, to have better end of life conversations with patients.

The Physician Assistant Studies Program and the Anatomical Gift Program partnered with the Center for Design Thinking on Aug. 25 and 26 to host the program “Crucial Conversations in Healthcare.” This year, the workshops were held in a virtual format.

Elon Physician Assistant Studies students and community volunteers used design thinking practices to help better prepare for the crucial end-of-life conversations they will have as health care practitioners and patients, fostering humility, empathy, compassion and respect.

Risa Hanau, director of education at AuthoraCare, gave a keynote titled “We All Have a Story,” at the beginning of the workshop, via Zoom.

Students engaged community volunteers from The Village at Brookwood and Twin Lakes Community.

Dianne Person, director of the Anatomical Gift Program in the School of Health Sciences, had the initial vision for the workshop in 2019. She partnered with Tracey Thurnes, associate professor of physician assistant studies and Danielle Lake, the Director of Design Thinking, to create a space for physician assistant students to build essential communication skills needed for their professional careers.

The Crucial Conversations program is designed to be a mutually beneficial partnership.

“It gives us all skills on how to approach a patient’s family, how to tell their story and have it be heard by family members and physicians,” Person said.

“We talk a lot in health care about how we don’t do this well. We don’t have crucial conversations enough, and we shy away from them because they can be challenging,” Thurnes said. “Doing events like this and using the design thinking process makes it more authentic and provides us with ways to approach crucial conversations with more empathy and innovation, allowing us to focus on the important human elements of having these conversations.”

Antoinette Polito, associate professor of physician assistant studies, joined the team this year and helped facilitate the move to a virtual format while leading a meaningful student debrief following their conversations. “This is a hard thing to teach. It’s one of those things that until you do it, it is hard to imagine these hard conversations,” Polito said.

Before the workshop, students used an experience map, a design thinking tool, to create a plan of action before their conversations. The experience maps included the students’ goals, actions they planned to talk in the conversation, points they wanted to talk about with the volunteers, and thoughts they had before the discussions. Student Audrey De Los Reyes shared with her volunteer that “as a future PA and as a daughter, I will now be more open to having these conversations with my patients and my family members in a more open and empathetic way.”

Following a keynote titled “We All Have a Story” from Risa Hanau, a licensed clinical social worker and director of education at AuthoraCare, the students were put into groups of three and placed into breakout rooms over Zoom with the volunteers. There, the volunteers shared their experiences of having these difficult conversations with family members and healthcare professionals.

Person said the design thinking techniques, introduced by Danielle Lake, director of the Center for Design Thinking, aided the students by giving them new tools to have a dialogue with the community volunteers.

“In this case, she introduced a better understanding for what the problem is by listening more fully to others and observing the situation more thoroughly,” Person said. “Designing a different approach intended to address the problem and testing that new approach with others so that conversations can improve over time. The goal is to develop mindsets that support more thoughtful and empathetic conversations between healthcare practitioners and their patients as well as between family members.”

Person plans to hold the workshop annually.