Can Taking a "Design Thinking Approach" Help Provide Solutions to Infectious Disease Issues?


A group of students from Johns Hopkins win first place at the fifth annual Pfizer Case Competition by providing solution to a problem regarding pneumonia vaccine compliance.

Five students from Johns Hopkins University were awarded first place and took home $5000 in the 5th annual Pfizer Case Competition, a competition that prompts participants to solve “real-world” business challenges which involve pharmaceutical products developed by Pfizer.

The winning case focused on creating a strategy to increase compliance for a pneumonia vaccine in children or seniors, according to a recent press release issued by Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that pneumococcal disease is common in younger children, however, it’s older adults who are at increased risk of developing more serious, often life-threatening infections. This is why the current CDC recommendations call for all babies and children under 2, all adults 65 or older, and anyone between 2 and 64 who have medical conditions that put them at increased risk of pneumococcal disease to receive the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine.

The Hopkins team consisted of Priya Arunachalam, Stephen DeMars, and Misha Isran (Global MBA students from Carey), as well as David Buxton and Dexter Waters, students from the Bloomberg School of Public Health. To create their strategy for the case, the team used behavioral economic theory. According to the press release, this meant taking a “design thinking approach,” which consists of several elements but boils down to a fundamental philosophy: “to conceive innovative solutions by zeroing in on a problem’s root causes.”

“Design thinking teaches you how to think differently when solving a problem; to take a more creative approach,” Sharon Kim, PhD, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School said in the news release.

Here’s how the process works:

  1. Understand the problem and make note of the constituencies affected by the issue.
  2. Observe the problem objectively to remove existing bias held by the design thinker or stakeholders.
  3. Examine the various viewpoints held by all stakeholders.

The first three steps of the process serve to create empathy for the users among the design thinkers.

Then comes:

  1. An ideation phase where thinkers are encouraged to think way “outside of the box.”
  2. A rapid prototyping phase which allows for key adjustments to be made to the plan
  3. The final testing phase

By putting themselves in the shoes of the stakeholders, the team was able to grasp a stronger understanding of the barriers faced in the case. The use of a “funneled approach” allowed them to glimpse the bigger picture before wheedling down to the core of the idea.

“We were careful in how we defined the problem and developed a comprehensive intervention inspired by solutions that have been used to address similar problems in different populations,” Waters, a Master of Science in Public Health candidate, explained.

All students were in agreement that these case competitions are beneficial on several fronts, but arguably most importantly it provides individuals with the opportunity to apply academic theories to real-world issues.

The competition comprised 10 student teams all from different universities across the United States. The teams were pitted against each other to come up with a solution to a case, which was judged by a panel comprised of Pfizer executives.

“Case competitions provide a unique platform to apply classroom concepts for novel real-world solutions,” DeMars said in the news release. “It’s a compelling way to leverage recently acquired skills, learn from peers, and engage with industry.”

Students from the University of Southern California ranked second place and were awarded $3000, while students hailing from the University of California Berkeley placed third, winning $2000.

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