The Open University: A new test for prostate cancer
Researchers at The Open University sought out a Design Council coaching programme to help them commercialise a new way of testing for prostate cancer.
Prostate cancer comprises 13% of all cancer cases in the UK and is the second leading cause of cancer death in British men after lung cancer. More than 10,000 men die from it each year.
At the current time, prostate cancer is not clearly linked to any preventable risk factors. However, the earlier that it is diagnosed, the better the treatment can be. Researchers at The Open University have been working to identify a potential prostate cancer test using Gas Chromatography – Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS).
Having successfully used GC-MS to test small numbers of urine samples with positive results, the research team were looking to expand testing and identify commercial opportunities. Through Design Council's coaching programme they worked with Design Associate Neil Gridley to understand how such a testing system could be structured, what it should cost and who would benefit. "We hoped Neil would give us a different perspective on how we take things forward and how best we communicate our ideas in an accessible format", Dr Geraint Morgan from the Department of Physics, The Open University, explained.
We hoped [Design Council] would give us a different perspective on how we take things forward and how best we communicate our ideas in an accessible format.
Dr Morgan, The Open University
What We Did
After reviewing the project, Neil worked with the team to understand how mapping the shape of the proposed service would work. This included the need to develop a business model identifying partners, delivery channels and how the service would make money.
"While they’d tested the idea on a small number of urine samples and the results had proved quite effective, they needed to extend this testing. Beyond that, they also had to convince people of the opportunities in taking this to market – in other words, identify the potential benefits of this new kind of test to the NHS and other healthcare providers, patients and practitioners" said Neil. "To get the feedback you need from the right people, you must be able to explain the idea simply and clearly."
They had to convince people of the opportunities in taking this to market – in order words, identify the potential benefits of this new kind of test to healthcare providers.
Neil Gridley, Design Council Design Associate
Neil advised two ways in which the team could visualise and explain the idea’s commercial potential. The first was to undertake a blueprinting process to map the proposed service. The second was to develop a business model in order to identify the partners required, potential delivery channels and how the service would make money. “User input at the earliest stages of an idea’s development is invaluable in order to test and prove assumptions and, where assumptions are disproved, correct them," he explained.
A decision was then taken to work with an external design expert to help refine the service’s potential business model. For that, expert service design consultant, Richard Telford was brought in.
This process also helps build a human proposition – the most effective way to communicate a new technology idea to potential partners needed for commercial development.
Richard Telford, external service design consultant
Richard addressed questions such as how users would hear about the service, how they would experience it from start to finish and how test results would be given and then what should happen next. "Sometimes there can be a gap between the idea for how to use a new technology, and an understanding of how end users might experience it," he explained.
"By mapping a service in this way, even before you actually test it, you can get a feel for where there might be time lags or unnecessary complexity in the user experience," said Richard. "This process also helps build a rounded, human proposition – the most effective way to communicate a new technology idea to potential partners needed for commercial development."
Richard also guided The OU team to define the core proposition and address questions around who would be the service’s customers, how it would be delivered to them, and different components within the service that could be charged for to identify potential revenue streams.
The end results detailed a proposed service design and business model for GC-MS-based prostate cancer testing, and a visualisation of how the user journey might look. The university team then evolved each with the help of a Macmillan-funded cancer specialist GP, which provided more valuable insights that fed into the updating of both.
According to Dr Morgan, the business model canvas and service blueprint outputs produced have been "invaluable in engaging the stakeholder community in our vision". He explained: "The visual representation of the service model has been very useful in engaging with GPs, consultants and healthcare professionals. It allows them to directly engage with the part of the service provision that is important to them, yet tells the whole narrative without any bias."
The outputs were well-structured and visually appealing, enabling the business case and patient roadmap to be summarised on single sheets of paper. These have proved invaluable in discussions with stakeholders...
Dr Morgan, The Open University
Dr Morgan has subsequently invited Richard to hold similar workshops on how the university might engage with GPs, and the general public, to develop an educational distance-learning portal for cancer.
The Oxford Academic Health Science Network has also been very impressed with the outputs and is considering using a similar approach for clarifying the various service models within the NHS.
"The outputs were well-structured and very visually appealing, enabling the business case and patient roadmap to be summarised on single sheets of paper. These have proved invaluable in discussions with stakeholders – all of which have commented on their value in allowing the full picture to be captured."
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