In a large, airy room at the headquarters of healthcare company Philips, in the Dutch town of Eindhoven, a group of local teenagers is earnestly discussing how to improve care for “Robin” — a patient of about their own age afflicted by appendicitis.

Each step of the journey, from diagnosis to recovery, is illustrated by AI-generated storyboards. But, while the scenario is imaginary, this is more than merely a well-meant but ultimately expendable form of community outreach.

Philips is seeking to tap into the wisdom of this cohort of digital natives, aged between 13 and 15, to help it rethink care, and identify technologies that can improve the patient experience.

“We do this because, if we’re meeting with young people, we’re actually looking at the future of healthcare,” says Peter Skillman, who is only the eighth global head of design in Philips’ near-100 year history. He proudly displays a book featuring photographs of his predecessors to underline the legacy he has inherited.

The utility of this youthful group is not simply its insight into what the next generation of healthcare staff and patients will want. It is also its ability to apply an open, agile mindset and influence care in the here and now.

This, Skillman suggests, is a generation that expects information to be imparted rapidly and in easily digestible form. And its members lack the automatic deference towards clinical authority that their parents or grandparents might have shown.

A middle-aged man, dressed in a black jacket and gray jeans, stands in a contemporary, high-tech setting. The room features a futuristic design with a large, circular machine in the background and a modern desk with a computer
Peter Skillman, Philips’ head of design © Ilvy Njiokiktjien

He adds: “They can task-switch really quickly and they are very adaptable. They are users of emergent new technology so [they have a] very low threshold to try new things out.”

Skillman had been struck by a comment earlier from one of the teens who had recalled that, after undergoing a medical test, she had been told to wait for a doctor to come and read the result. “She said ‘I had to wait so long and the doctor came in and said, in two minutes, ‘everything’s fine’,” he recalls. “And she was [asking] ‘why?’ They have no respect for the hierarchy of medical leadership. What they think is ‘these people are serving me’.”

Divided into groups, the young people first talk through the storyboards, exploring the feelings they evoke. Certain common themes emerge: concern about what might go wrong in surgery; a desire to receive information quickly and in ways they can understand; a wish to spare their parents worry.

Then, they are taken to a different part of the building, where senior software architect Jean-Marc Huijskens introduces them to a variety of up-to-the-minute technologies that would delight any teen. These include demonstrations of augmented and virtual reality [AR and VR] — a simulated, immersive experience used, in this instance, to show how it feels to drive while extremely tired — and a machine that allows surgeons to see a 3D image of the heart, allowing them to determine the size of stent needed to keep blood vessels open.

Back in their groups, further discussion ensues before, with shy pride, the young people present their ideas. These include: a “care robot”, to mitigate the sense of insecurity and uncertainty often felt by young patients; an AI avatar to prepare them for what to expect from treatment; and a robot “cuddle animal” to keep worried younger patients company. The putative inventions would all harness generative AI, ensuring patients could have questions about their spell in hospital answered in real time.

The youngsters’ ideas have to be validated by a wider group, including designers, engineers, patient groups and physicians. However, past experience suggests that some, at least, may bear fruit.

Skillman cites a session in 2019 when another group of teenagers spent time in one of its innovation labs, learning about how catheters are used in hospitals to carry out procedures in a less invasive way than traditional surgery.

A group of young adults stand attentively as they watch a man wearing a virtual reality headset
Pupils from Huygens Lyceum look at Philips equipment . . . © Ilvy Njiokiktjien
A person places a sticky note on a wall covered with several other sticky notes, each containing handwritten notes in Dutch. Above the notes, there is a detailed poster with illustrations and descriptions depicting various stages of medical diagnosis and treatment
. . . and contribute ideas © Ilvy Njiokiktjien

“What they said was, ‘I want you to tell me immediately what happened [during the procedure] in simple terms. Don’t give me medical speak, because I don’t understand it.” Now, the company uses an AI-powered programme to communicate complicated medical diagnoses in simple language.

Aware that these youngsters are not only the patients, but also the doctors, nurses and healthcare workers of the future, Philips’ director of data-enabled solutions, Robert-Jan de Pauw, also runs sessions for those contemplating a clinical career. They are asked to try out existing and prototype technologies.

Building a new system, he says, “takes us about seven and a half to 10 years maybe”. So, by the time it is on the market, these teens may be old enough to be deploying it as adult medical professionals. 

De Pauw points to small but telling differences that are feeding into Philips’ design decisions from the information gleaned during these sessions.

For example, when handling remote controls, teenagers, he notes, “use their thumb, whereas older people tend to use the pointing finger. We believe it’s very important to get the insights of younger people as they are the system’s future users”.

At the end of their morning immersed in health technology, two of the youngsters at the session witnessed by the FT are buzzing with the new information and perspectives they have acquired.

With her teacher acting as interpreter, Diede Tyssens, aged 14, who is considering midwifery as a career, says she “loved that she could dive into the medical world”.

Her 15 year old classmate, Anuraag Nayak, who is considering biology or medicine as a future path, says he “learned a lot. I didn’t even know that such things [as simulations and VR] existed”.

He has recently had his own brush with appendicitis, giving the day’s activities a particular resonance for him: “This project was pretty personal,” he says.

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