Design thinking

Circular design considerations in healthcare

Sofia Jacobsson Warfaa & Ulrika Vejbrink

Today we are seeing the beginnings of a shift from the linear “take, make, dispose” approach toward a more circular one. Within the healthcare sector, various types of projects – from large hospital equipment to disposables and services – can benefit from a circular design approach and methodology, no matter how they differ in design challenge. When applying circular design thinking to a healthcare project, here are a few things worth considering:

Bring the client aboard – identify and communicate opportunities early on

The healthcare sector defines safety as its highest priority. Together with costs, the use perspective comes in a clear second. Without a safe, useable product at the right price, there is no business. And while sustainability may be on the agenda, it has lower priority and is seldom an outspoken demand.

True circularity, however, does not come about without effort. As designers, our role is to uncover opportunities and to challenge our clients.


We play an important role in placing the circularity topic on the agenda and making sure it stays there. To be able to influence an upcoming project on a large scale, circularity must be brought up early.

In many societies around the world the healthcare sector is under intense economic pressure. While this may pose great challenges, it may also open circular opportunities like refurbishment of used equipment or sales models that do not require upfront investment. More radical visions, are seldom successfully added later on in the development process, but need to be approached at an early stage.


Bring in all perspectives

True insight is key to identifying future opportunities. In the circular design process, it is crucial to bring in a full range of user perspectives and to look at challenges throughout an entire product lifecycle. Contextual research can provide insight into user aspects such as behavior, needs and aspirations, as well as into circular design aspects, such as product lifecycle, purchase, maintenance, reuse and disposal. However, when planning the research we need to also make room for these circular design aspects – both the low hanging fruit and the more profound changes.


In healthcare, the different types of users and stakeholders involved may include e.g. healthcare professionals, patients and purchasers, as well as production, cleaning, service and maintenance personnel. By understanding the big picture and regularly switching perspectives from a holistic view to a detail focus, we can design for both a systems perspective (services, infrastructure, mindset of purchasers and users, etc.) and a detailed one (easy to clean, easy to separate and recycle, etc.) alike.

Challenge disposables

Challenges such as contamination, cleaning and safety are much more pronounced and regulated within healthcare than in many other sectors, which often leads to turning down reusable products in favor of those that are disposable.

Although we know that disposables may be safe and convenient from a use perspective, they can be troublesome from a circular perspective. The divide is even more amplified in healthcare due to the complications inherent in recycling contaminated waste.



For a reusable product, being compared with disposable alternatives, it is important to optimize advantages in functionality and usability while properly addressing risks and efficiency related to contamination and cleaning.

When it comes to healthcare equipment, the consumables required for use may be a substantial part of a product’s ecological footprint. Therefore, being smart about consumables, by reducing materials and selecting the best materials possible are, of course, important. New service models may also, if done right, incentivize the reduction of consumables.

Make sure the first use cycle is extensive

Designing for a long lifespan, prior to a product reaching its next stage, is crucial. No matter how easily refurbished or recycled a product may be, extending its first use cycle always requires less resources. In this endeavor, designing for graceful ageing is an important factor when designing for a continuously positive user experience.

It is ideal to design every healthcare product to be easy to clean, maintain and repair. If done properly, overall design plus choosing materials that can withstand wear and tear, environmental factors and repeated cleaning, help a product age well.



Our intent as designers is to “future-proof” design so a product stays relevant and usable for as long as possible. This is a notable challenge within healthcare, where development timelines and product shelf life are typically protracted. Modularity and upgradeability are important factors in prolonging use, and when it comes to aesthetics we look away from short term trends and strive for design that is not easily dated.

Satisfied users are key to continued usage of a product, which should be optimized for its intended use, its users and its environment. The product should also be perceived of as effective, safe, easy and pleasant to use.

If these requirements are taken into consideration during the design process, we eventually have a product, device or equipment that provides positive user experience for a long time before it hopefully goes into its next life cycle.