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How does nurse-led innovation come to life?

Embracing a need for change. Clearly defining the problem. Experimentation. Collaborative thinking that breaks down the norm. All of these are critical parts of the innovation process. But knowing where to start can lead to more questions than answers — especially in a complex industry like healthcare. Luckily, there are many nurse innovators who have already paved a way.

Here are examples of nurse-led innovations that have made an impact on healthcare for the better, and a breakdown of the process it takes to bring these solutions to life.

What is Nurse-led Innovation?
Nurse-led innovation has the power to transform health and healthcare systems. That’s because, in assessing a patient or a problem, nurses don’t just consider results. They use critical thinking to define a problem, and combine objective data with on-the-ground experience and teamwork to create solutions that make sure every patient receives the best possible treatment.

Because it’s not just about developing a new gizmo or gadget. It’s about creating new models of care, safety practices, more efficient processes — and even innovations that tackle social challenges to improve patient outcomes.
Read how Nurse Scientist and Nurse Practitioner Micah Skeens from Nationwide Children's Hospital and Janet Van Cleave from New York University’s Rory Meyers College of Nursing are innovating in the Oncology space through a personalized mobile experience for children and a digital health platform for capturing patient-reported symptoms of cancer treatment.
Learn about nurse and innovator Abi Huskins, RN, BSN, CPN. During her time with a medical service partnership in Kenya, she observed two severely malnourished twin boys who still had dangerously low levels of hemoglobin, even after receiving formula. When she later discovered they had sickle cell anemia, Abi created the first prototype for a medical device to help patients in need of chronic transfusions, using Play-Doh, a cork, and a spare needle.
See how Veterans Affairs nurse and researcher, Shannon Munro, PhD, APRN, BC, FNP, discovered a startling solution to reduce hospital-acquired pneumonia: ask patients to brush their teeth twice a day. This surprisingly simple yet impactful habit also led her to start Hospital-Acquired Pneumonia Prevention (HAPPEN), a unique program that lets Munro share her learnings and expertise with colleagues everywhere.
As an emergency room nurse, Maria Striemer, RN, BA, often faces troubling experiences. This time, it was with a child who almost died in her care after being accidentally left in a hot car. To help prevent it from happening again, Maria invented “Backseet Buddy,” an app that uses Bluetooth beacon technology to alert parents who have moved more than 50 meters away from a car seat.
What do a nurse, a handyman, and an occupational therapist have in common? Each plays an important role in providing at-home health services to older adults through the Community Aging in Place — Advancing Better Living for Elders (CAPABLE) intervention. Alongside her multidisciplinary team, Sarah Szanton, Ph.D., RN, ANP, FAAN, works with low-income adults to meet functional goals, like taking a bath or walking to church.
Read more about nurse Danielle Jordan Bastien, APRN, DNP, FNP-BC, who created an innovative screening protocol that flags patients who might be victims of human trafficking. Her new program now trains nurses, physicians, and law enforcement, so they can better identify and assist victims in need.

Where do you begin?

While it might be easy to recognize an idea, figuring out what to do next can feel overwhelming. To help you get started, here are steps in the Design Thinking process — a solution-based approach to solving complex problems — that many healthcare innovators use.

  • Define the Problem
    Bringing an innovation to life starts well before creating it. It begins with clearly defining a problem and empathizing with the people you could help. As a nurse innovator, consider what things will look like in the future and how healthcare can be improved overall, especially with the current U.S. healthcare system. Take the opportunity to truly understand a patient’s needs and the needs of the system as a whole, so you can start coming up with a truly impactful solution that goes beyond standard, everyday care.

    While this step is often fraught with uncertainty, try to stay focused on the moment. Reframe ideas and find patterns in the information you’re given. That will help you decide the people, tools, and techniques you need to tackle it.
  • Ideate and Brainstorm
    Once you have a solution in mind, workshop it. Speak with your colleagues, healthcare staff in different departments, and thinkers from other industries, like tech development and engineering. As you integrate different points of view, continue testing new ideas and learning from less familiar scenarios.

    Over time, the information you’ll gather will come from many places and take on different forms — from treatment history to lifestyle choices and even genetic data — and synthesizing it will help you identify more underlying opportunities. Developing frameworks, like mapping out when and how people will use your solution, can help you connect those dots and thread disparate pieces together.
  • Prototype, Iterate, Repeat
    Now that you understand what you’re designing, it’s time to prototype your idea. That could mean building something tangible, designing something digital that you can click or tap through, or piloting a trial with a small group of volunteers. To mitigate risk in these early testing stages, consider moving from hospital-based clinical experiences to simulation-only laboratories.

    Remember that your prototype doesn’t have to be perfect. Show it at an appropriate level of polish, based on who will test it and the feedback you hope to gain — whether it’s from peers or end users, like patients. Once you receive their input, iterate and repeat the process.

    Repeating this loop of prototyping, testing, and gathering feedback is critical for making sure your design is right. Meaning: It works for your users, you can build it, and you can support it.
  • Build Support
    The purpose of creating a prototype is to be able to share it with people who can help you bring it to life. Start with your immediate network and who can connect you with other nurse innovators. Look into healthcare-focused innovation events in your area. And share your idea at events like hackathons, where you could meet new thinkers to join your team.

    As you share your idea, don’t forget the spectrum between those who will directly benefit from your solution and those who have the resources to promote its implementation. Remember: whether it’s from a chief nursing officer, chief clinical officer, or research dean, support for an innovation, and a more innovative culture, starts at the top and filters down through all levels of a healthcare organization.
  • Pitching
    For many new nurse innovators, pitching their first idea can feel daunting, especially when there are a lot of stakeholders to please. Needs, wants, and values can vary from person to person. With that in mind, tailor your pitch to who you need to make an impression on at any given time. When speaking to a physician, focus on topics like improved outcomes, but when presenting to an executive, touch on increased revenues.

    Making sure your presentation is succinct yet comprehensive can also help drive these conversations forward. Keep it short, sharp, and easily understandable. Do the homework on potential buyers so you can anticipate questions, like whether or not your solution will fit within their electronic medical records (EMR.) And don't overstate your connection with healthcare organizations — knowing an individual is not the same as having a relationship with the institution.
  • Implement
    As you implement your solution, you’ll continue working closely with key stakeholders, including the medical team who will use it every day, and organizational leaders. Understand that you may experience pauses — after all, innovating means iterating and making changes — but this is where the support system you’ve built can help reinforce your idea’s positive impact.

    Once it’s been launched, keep monitoring your solution’s progress and resetting the bar for what success looks in the immediate and far future. At that point, you can plan how to scale from a smaller group of early users to hundreds of thousands, all over the world.

Learn from Nurse Innovators

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01
Learn the business of healthcare. Don't be scared of finance, strategy, operations, or entrepreneurship because it will give you the skill sets you need to be able to sit at the table in the boardroom, and drive forward the transformational change that is needed to be led by nursing."
Rebecca Love
MSN, BA, RN, FIEL, President, SONSIEL
02
For over 17 years, nurses have been identified as the most trusted profession, but we don’t have the same level of influence. We need to figure out how to leverage this trust… With these challenges come great opportunities to create the future of nursing, instead of letting it happen to us. This is the time to be more innovative than ever before."
Bonnie Clipper
DNP, MA, MBA, RN, CENP, FACHE, Chief Clinical Officer, Wambi
03
One of the best things nurses can do is become aware of the role of design in delivering care, and that, just because something has been designed a particular way because it’s how it has always been, doesn’t mean that it cannot be improved."
Debbie Gregory
DNP, RN, Founder of Nursing Institute for Healthcare Design
04
It’s incredible for nurses to learn the language of entrepreneurship, the process behind creating and commercializing an idea, developing a business plan, and more. I think a big barrier for nurses in innovation is that they don’t know what they don’t know, and providing mentorship to nurses is vital to helping them and future nurses succeed."
Marion Leary
RN, MSN, MPH, Director of Innovation, University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing
05
Innovation is not an elitist sport. It is not for people with fancy titles. In fact, we know that innovation is most impactful when it is initiated by those in the frontlines. When you involve the people in the frontlines and empower them to solve problems, they most often come up with elegant solutions that are incredibly cost-effective."
Tim Raderstorf
DNP, RN Chief Innovation Officer at Ohio State University
Looking for helpful ways to grow your skills as a nurse innovator?
  • Innovation Research & Development
    JLABS: The Premier Life Science Incubator Empowering and Enabling innovators
  • Nurse Leadership Development
    Evidence-Based Leadership, Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Nursing and Healthcare: A Practical Guide to Success
  • Nurses Leading Innovation
    Mastering Innovation: A Program Empowering Today’s Healthcare Leaders
More Nurse-Led Innovation
Innovation 101
Get inspired
References
  • Where do you begin?
    Design Thinking, ” Stanford D School – Approach, “The 5 Steps to Implementing Innovation,” “How to Pitch Healthcare Systems” “Innovations Roadmap”.
  • Types of Innovation
    References: BC and ANA site language provided by JnJ team
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