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Alumni Profile: Applying a Design Degree in a Healthcare Setting

Justin visited campus this fall to share his unusual career path to current students as part of the KaleidoLA Speaker Series.

Justin visited campus this fall to share his unusual career path with current students as part of the KaleidoLA Speaker Series.

Forging a career in healthcare may seem like an unlikely choice for a designer, but for one LMU Studio Arts program grad, this path was years in the making.

Justin Lai, who graduated from LMU with a degree in graphic design in 2014, had always felt called to do something he really cared about. Wanting to make an impact in the world is not an unusual career goal, but for Justin it was acutely personal. In high school, he lost a close relative to cancer. In experiencing the healthcare system as a caregiver, Justin was shocked at how the process had so little design. Having a serious health crisis is already a terrifying experience, and adding an unwelcoming hospital environment can often negatively affect patients and caregivers, who in the United States are barely considered in the process of their care.

Justin has always felt that society can be moved forward with design. For him, design has the ability to open up a mindset of creative and innovative thinking. Justin felt called to bring this attitude to the healthcare industry, and started exploring this concept during his undergrad time at LMU. He met with professors and mentors in the Studio Arts program to discuss how he could pursue his dream of being a healthcare designer. For his senior thesis, he decided to explore the concept of stigma and how to use design to improve health outcomes for certain patients. He interviewed staff members from LMU’s Student Psychological Services to learn about their problems and challenges. Upon discovering that accessibility of mental health care was a big hurdle for patients, he developed a prototype that would give students the power to easily seek out their own mental health care. He built a mobile app where students could sign up for appointments and have better control over their healthcare process.

Upon graduation from LMU, Justin decided to enroll in Boston University’s School of Public Health to earn his Master’s in Public Health and immerse himself in the healthcare profession. As part of his program there, he worked both in a hospital and as part of a research study. When deciding his post-graduation career plans, Justin came across an opportunity with the innovative Medicine X program at Stanford University, which has a philosophy of elevating the underrepresented voices in healthcare. For Justin, working for an organization with the goal of using design and technology to improve both patient and provider experience was a perfect fit.

Justin Lai '14

Justin Lai ’14

Justin’s ultimate goal is to bring the healthcare experience closer to what you might have at a retail store, which is geared toward the customer. “Look at a consumer-facing sector, like consumer electronics. You walk into a place like the Apple Store, someone checks you in, smiles at you, the surroundings are elegant – it’s a nice place to be,” Justin said. “And compare that to a hospital setting, which is completely the opposite – there’s loud noises, there’s harsh smells, there’s environmental stress. It’s a very high-impact place. So how can we take the lessons learned from other sectors and apply that level of design in the healthcare setting? That’s some of the work that we’ve been doing.”

One case Justin and his teammates worked on recently involved exploring ways to improve the medical research process. They received an invitation by the White House Office of Science, Technology, and Policy to lead a workshop in Washington, DC with the goal of innovating clinical trials. Clinical trials can be a very backwards process – patients are asked to go out of their way, investing time and effort to undergo a treatment that may or may not even work. However, for some patients with a devastating illness, this may be the only option they have – and this prospect can be very frightening. The team’s recommendations involved engaging patients early in the diagnosis process, exploring how to make patient-driven research into a business-driven model, and acknowledging the importance of reshaping the culture of medical research so patients feel more valid and engaged in their own healthcare process.

Justin was recently invited to speak to current LMU students and community members at a KaleidoLA Speaker Series talk, hosted by the Department of Art and Art History. These weekly, hour-long talks include a speaker portion, followed by the opportunity for discussion with a question and answer session. Justin spoke about his career path and using his creative degree in an unexpected way, telling the students, “I urge you all to think about using creativity and using your problem-solving skills to think of a way you can make this world a bit more interesting, a bit more beautiful and a bit more meaningful. It doesn’t have to be a new application or a high-tech tool, it could be an art piece, it could be a movement. We have these skills and this power as designers to use this creative thinking that we’ve learned here at LMU – principles that I’ll never forget – to bring about that change. This is more important now than ever.”