Graduate Student Reshapes Breast Cancer Diagnosis Procedure

Author: Joanna Basile

Charlotte Lux

Charlotte Lux, a graduate student in the University of Notre Dame Department of Art, Art History, and Design, is using her skills as an industrial designer to rethink the way breast cancer patients experience a particularly stressful diagnostic test.

Drawing on ethnographic research funded by Notre Dame’s Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts, Lux developed a new approach for a procedure called a stereotactic breast biopsy—an assessment doctors use to follow up on abnormal mammogram results. The patient must remain perfectly still for up to an hour during the test, which involves placing the breast in compression paddles while the suspicious area is isolated, x-rayed, and sampled using a large core needle.

“It is crucial that the equipment, environment, and personnel work in harmony to facilitate an atraumatic experience for the patient,” she says, “If she is diagnosed with breast cancer, this will help her to begin the journey with as positive an outlook as possible.”

Observation Inspires Understanding

Lux traveled to leading breast cancer facilities at six hospitals across the United States. At these locations, she conducted qualitative research—including observation, personal immersion, shadowing, and contextual interviews—to gain a firsthand understanding of how the procedure is currently performed. She also worked closely with patients, radiologists, nurses, and x-ray technologists at the Memorial Regional Breast Care Center in South Bend, she says—all of which “proved invaluable for adhering to an informed and collaborative design process.”

Lux’s redesign proposes changes to what she considers to be key “touch points” in the diagnosis procedure. These include the nurse-patient information exchange, the gown patients wear, visual focal points in the testing room, and, most importantly, the table on which patients lie throughout most of the procedure.

“The design of the equipment and the environment can contribute significantly to the effect the experience has on the patient, which can reduce stress and potentially speed healing,” she says.

Having the opportunity to do primary research was critical to Lux’s understanding of how to assess her findings and begin translating them into ideas for change.

“Conducting research for this project was unlike any other experience I have had before,” she says. “Sharing in the everyday work of the clinicians and meeting the patients changed the nature of what I was doing. To witness the fear, anxiety, and discomfort these women felt really humanized it for me and gave me the empathy to take a patient-centered approach in redesigning elements of the procedure.”

A Future in Healthcare Design

“My biggest mentor through this thesis process has been my professor, Ann-Marie Conrado,” Lux says. “I have been fortunate to work with her and benefit from her extensive experience in healthcare-related research and design and her deep understanding of qualitative research methods.”

Lux is planning to complete her master’s program this May and then start working as a design researcher in Chicago at IA Collaborative, where she would like to focus on healthcare design.

“There I will be able to apply much of what I have learned through my thesis research to client projects, focusing on user research and innovative design strategy,” she says.

Lux’s final project design will be on display in the Snite Museum of Art as part of the annual art student thesis exhibition from April 3 through May 22, 2011.

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