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RCA Architecture Students' HELIX Design Studio Pioneering Healthcare Innovation

The Healthcare Innovation Exchange (HELIX) Centre, in collaboration with Imperial Health Trust’s St Mary’s Hospital, combines the RCA’s creativity and user-centred design expertise with Imperial College London’s clinical, engineering and scientific know-how, to identify patient-centred and cost-effective solutions to the most pressing healthcare challenges faced today.

Opening in January 2015, HELIX’s new design studio will operate within the grounds of St Mary’s Hospital as a hub to engage frontline NHS staff and patients as co-design collaborators. The purpose-built premises will operate an open-door policy, inviting healthcare staff to participate in a programme of training, workshops and seminars.

The new studio was designed by RCA Architecture students Ralf Alwani, Joanna Hyland and Matthew Volsen, who said, ‘Working closely with professionals from various fields has given us an invaluable insight into the practising industry. We have been thrilled to collaborate with a great team of people and have found the experience a rewarding one.’ Their design derived from the principles of the HELIX initiative. On this basis, they describe the structure as a ‘bookcase’ and the workspace as a table, all carefully crafted with a simple selection of materials. The structure was fabricated at the Brighton workshop of Millimetre, before being craned on to site and constructed over a period of several days.

Adrian Friend, Senior Tutor Architecture said, 'In the Helix Centre project we tested the application of digital manufacture as a design tool to raise the quality of the architecture and make an end product that epitomises beauty and exudes precision yet is affordable and quick to construct – an approach that mimics how the Helix Centre will optimise healthcare innovation.' 

Since its launch in November 2013, HELIX has been laying the foundations to tackle the five major global health challenges that it identifies as managing chronic conditions; trauma care and rehabilitation; care of the elderly; managing long-term conditions; and staying healthy.

In its first year, HELIX has initiated a portfolio of ongoing design projects that range from product, digital and service redesign, and expect to have their first spin outs and/or licenses in 2015. Current projects include working to improve end-of-life care; transforming the experience of patients with cancer services; creating a novel low-cost device and app to better manage and diagnose asthma in children; and developing game-ified interventions to support children to be more active and challenge obesity.

Led by Professor Lord Ara Darzi, Director of the Institute for Global Health Innovation at ICL, and Dr Paul Thompson, Rector of the Royal College of Art, HELIX has established a multidisciplinary team, including Jonathan West and Gianpaolo Fusari of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, who are now working from a design studio at the centre of St Mary’s Hospital to provide invaluable regular contact with clinical teams and hospital staff, as well as a network of Imperial College researchers.

HELIX was supported initially by a grant from the HEFCE catalyst fund. Since the launch, additional funding secured from the Lord Leonard and Lady Estelle Wolfson Foundation, the Oak Foundation and The Eranda Foundation.

As well as establishing its own team, HELIX has developed crucial relationships with international partners, through a joint study day with Stanford Biodesign in California, a field visit to TATA, Apollo and Naralaya hospitals in India, and a weeklong ‘design boost’ with IDEO around ideas to encourage children to be more active.

From January 2015, the new design studio will enable HELIX to involve patients and healthcare practitioners in its important work to design low-cost, high-impact frugal innovation techniques to improve healthcare, with UK and global applications.

The RCA would like to thank consultants AKT II, Gardiner Theobald and DP9 for their input into this project.