Dr Carla Perrotta

Assistant Professor, UCD, School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Sciences

I graduated as a medical doctor in 1993 at the University of Buenos Aires. Across a nearly thirty year career between two continents, I have encountered common issues that I sought to explore in my Innovation Fellowship: how to create a culture of change and innovation in healthcare; the influence of different educational approaches on the healthcare systems our students go on join; and the role of empathy and patient-centred design in health services. 

The challenges in health services in Ireland and internationally are numerous and have been magnified by the pandemic: fragmentation, demand pressure, burn-out, health services disconnected from patients’ needs, bureaucracy, wasteful expenditure and inequalities to name a few. Plenty of debate has taken place on how to address these challenges from the top down. However the importance of patients’ voices to better understand and tackle some of those challenges is a recent and welcome development. This was the first theme of my Fellowship.

Closer to home, within the university system, we have our own challenges. Little time is devoted to studying organisational culture, change, leadership, and team building in health services. My students in UCD’s Masters of Public Health are professionals who are either working or will be working in the health services. If we want these students to be the change makers of the future, theory alone will not transform how they think. We need more opportunities for experiential learning.  As well as transforming how our students think, we also need to transform how we the educators think. If we are to catalyse change in our malfunctioning health systems, that change begins with how we teach our future public health leaders. This was the second theme of my Fellowship.

During my Innovation Fellowship, I set out to assess empathy driven activities I had previously assigned to my students as part of my Diploma in Creativity and Education for Innovation. The activities had sought to help students understand public health challenges, from the perspective of those experiencing those challenges.

In these activities, I had asked my students to select a public health challenge and address the challenge using design thinking. Innovation Academy facilitators helped the students to understand the fundamentals of design thinking and apply the basic tools of user-centred design. 

“If we want these students to be the change makers of the future, theory alone will not transform how they think.”

I analysed the outcomes of these practical exercises through surveys and feedback and with the support of colleagues outside my department.

Some students did not like the activity at all; their resistance mostly stemmed from a fear of ‘letting go’ and ceding the sense of control they have with the traditional education system. 

In one example of this, I was taken aback by some of my students’ reaction to a challenge I assigned them to define an intervention for vaccine hesitant college students. Students were asked to go to campus and simply ask questions. There was significant resistance to completing the activity. 

It was striking how great a challenge we have in changing thought processes and what all of this means for the reform and innovation our health system so desperately needs.

My empathy work was also insightful. I spoke with past students and listened to their suggestions. One student suggested positioning the design thinking exercise as a core seminar, across diverse modules (Health Promotion or Public Health Practise) and to have more time and opportunity to prototype and test the impact of their ideas. 

At the end of my Fellowship, I can see clearly that if we are to produce meaningful change in public health services, students must come willingly to embrace the importance of empathy in all they do. This ‘aha’ moment will not happen with a book or a PowerPoint presentation. 

In the future, I would like to incorporate partnerships with communities, health services, and minority groups into my classroom activities.  My vision is that through academic-community-health services partnerships we will better equip students as future leaders in innovative and patient-centred health services.  

Dr Carla Perrotta was one of 11 Convene Innovation Fellows to participate in the inaugural Convene Fellowship in 2021 at UCD Innovation Academy. Convene is a collaboration between UCD Innovation Academy and TU Dublin funded under Human Capital Initiative Pillar III. HCI seeks, among other aims, to promote innovative methods of teaching and delivery.