Jul 10, 2018

My cancer battle made me
declare war on wasted time

Estimated reading time: 4-6 minutes

What inspires you to get out of bed every morning? For many Philips employees, work and life intersect in unexpected and surprising ways. This is the very personal story of Christine Welsh, 36, a Senior Creative & Design Team Lead for the Software Design Language System.

Being given seven years to live when I was 18 taught me a vital lesson: never waste time, it’s too precious. Even before I became ill I had always been in a hurry, I started school early and applied to Glasgow School of Art at just 16. I was turned down, but that was a blessing in disguise as it set me up on the path to where I am today. I opted to study Digital Arts at Glasgow Metropolitan College instead and that’s where I learned about the vital importance of design, not just in how something looks, but how it functions too.


In my first year at college, I was diagnosed with Large B-cell Diffused Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The name is such a mouthful because, it was so rare the doctors had to create a new classification of cancer for me. It started as a lump on my neck, but tests showed it was an aggressive form of Lymphoma. I had to spend a year in hospital having round after round of chemo to kill it off. My friends would bring in my college assignments and my room was always a mess of books and sketches, but I was determined that cancer wouldn’t stop my studies.


I recently shared my story on the Philips podcast, The Spark, about how that year in hospital was life changing in so many ways. The most important was that, despite coming close to death more than once, my doctors were able to save my life – I have been free from cancer for over a decade now. But it also gave me first-hand experience of life as a patient and showed me how really small things can mean the difference between life and death: something as mundane as the beeping of a machine saved my life as it alerted the nurses that I was in trouble.

I wanted a career where I could make a difference to people suffering with health problems.”

It also made me realise I wanted a career where I could make a difference to people suffering with health problems. My first thought was to retrain as a doctor, but I can’t bear the sight of needles, so that was out. For a while I worked in a few different jobs, I set up my own company, worked in fintech at a few banks helping them to set up their online banking systems, but I always felt a bit lost.


Then a friend invited me to come and work in Amsterdam. I packed up two suitcases and left Glasgow seven years ago and I’ve been here ever since. That’s how I ended up joining Philips two years ago. I came in for a chat and as soon the interviewer told me their vision to use health tech to improve lives I knew I was finally in the right place.

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Christine Welsh: “I have found my way to make a difference.”

My job as Senior Creative Lead for the Software Design Language System is all about working with my team to create the software building blocks that get put together to make whole designs, either for mobile phones or imaging machines like MR or CT scanners. It might sound like it’s a long way from becoming a doctor, but actually great design can help to save lives too.


During my year in hospital, I learned so much about the equipment used to keep me alive. I realised those machines are your lifeline and they are what tells your medical team when there’s something wrong. If I can help find a way to make them faster and easier to use I know it will help to save lives. Better design can make a real difference by helping to deliver drugs more efficiently, displaying exactly what is going on or alerting a nurse or doctor faster when something goes wrong.


Ultimately, my goal is that no one ever notices my work, because good design should help you get things done, without getting in the way. Having lived in a hospital for a year I understand the frustrations and struggles bad design can cause. It gave me a deep knowledge that I can use to help me ensure that any software we create will genuinely help the nurses and doctors do their jobs.


Even now I take every opportunity to use my life experience to help me create better software design. I had an MRI scan the other day and I quizzed my doctor on the appointment booking system he uses, I took everything he said right back to my team, along with my scans (which were all clear). I am happy my job lets me do crazy things like this to help improve what we create.

I take every opportunity to use my life experience to help me create better software design.”

I love that where I work is so open to ideas. It is somewhere that if you can suggest a way to do things better you will get the green light to give it a try. That’s so important given the disruption taking place in health technology right now. Having worked in fintech I soon realised that healthcare was lagging behind the financial sector, but that has to change.


There is a move away from paper towards digital and away from local care towards tapping into global expertise. People are demanding more information on their health, and because of the changes in other industries, they expect a seamless digital experience.


Take patient records, handling them manually is so inefficient, but once they live in the digital space patients can own their data – and that is so valuable. They can take it to any doctor in the world, while sharing this data could make things like finding a bone marrow donor so much easier as searching for a match could happen at the touch of a button.


While face-to-face consultations are vital in some cases, you are limited to the doctors who work near you. If we can create a way for you to be seen by a doctor anywhere in the world virtually it means you could get treatment advice from the very best specialists. My own cancer was so rare I often knew more about it than my doctors. I think my recovery might have been faster if my doctors and I could have worked with experts and specialists around the world, but that just wasn’t possible at the time.


This is the direction healthcare is moving in, and that’s why I believe that by helping to make the digital space efficient and seamless as possible I have found my way to make a difference. Better software design can win back wasted time for doctors, nurses and patients, so they can all focus on the business of living.


The Spark is a 12-episode podcast series that explores Philips’ diverse global workforce and people’s sources of inspiration – the ‘spark’ that makes them tick. From a Change Manager forced to leave her home in war-torn Bosnia to build a new life abroad, to a Peruvian Scientist whose own life experiences have made him passionate about bringing healthcare to the world’s poorest countries, each episode focuses on a different employee whose inspirational background has become their professional passion. Find all the episodes here.

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