Driving Innovation, Ideation and Collaboration at Penn Nursing
There’s a tidal wave of innovative thinking happening at nursing schools across the country, and the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing is considered by many throughout the nursing community as a leader in encouraging a focus on innovation to its nursing students. While many nursing schools have yet to catch on to the value of instilling innovation, business and entrepreneurship into the curriculum for its nurses, Penn Nursing knows that in order to help drive better health outcomes and improvements in care, nurses need to be better equipped to lead in areas of healthcare innovation.
No one believes this more than Marion Leary, RN, MSN, MPH, the first Director of Innovation at Penn Nursing. As a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania working on innovative solutions around CPR training, Marion began to learn more about the business of innovation and wondered why there weren’t more opportunities for nurses to lead in the space. Leadership at Penn Nursing agreed and began working with Marion to incorporate innovative thinking and programming into the department and curriculum. Now a year into her role as Director of Innovation, Marion Leary couldn’t be prouder of the programs she and the faculty have developed and launched, from an innovation accelerator, a pitch competition and a nursing story slam to launching a thought-provoking podcast and implementing groundbreaking classes for nurses to get involved in innovation.
In an effort to reinvigorate how the public thinks about the nursing profession and highlight nurses leading in policy, science and innovation, Penn Nursing recently launched Amplify Nursing, a new podcast hosted by Marion Leary and Dr. Angelarosa DiDonato, DNP, CRNA, Associate Program Director of the Nurse Anesthesia Program at Penn Nursing. Amplify Nursing shares the stories of nurses who are pushing boundaries and breaking down barriers in healthcare and beyond.
“Most people picture nurses at the bedside, but the reality is they are in so many other places — research institutions, the military, courtrooms, Congress, board rooms,” said Marion. “Our hope is that Amplify Nursing can inspire listeners to think about the plethora of opportunities for nurses and the breadth and depth of nursing influence on society.”
This year, Penn Nursing also launched the Penn Nursing Innovation Accelerator, a program that provides up to $10k in funding to assist Penn Nursing students and faculty with research and development resources to help scale their innovative ideas. This past January, several nurse teams pitched their solutions before a panel of judges from the Philadelphia innovation and entrepreneur community. Three finalists were selected based on the potential for their ideas to add value to health or healthcare, the feasibility of their idea, the thoroughness of their approach, the novelty of the innovation and its potential for commercialization. Next month, the finalists will begin ten months of mentorship that will help them work through development and provide additional resources necessary to scale their innovations.
“I’m so excited to see the incredible solutions that develop through this program, but I’m even more excited for what a program like this can do to develop nurses as entrepreneurs,” said Marion. “It’s an incredible opportunity 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 this mentorship to nurses is vital to helping them and future nurses succeed in innovation.”
Every nurse has a story to tell and to give a voice to those on the frontlines of healthcare, Penn Nursing also recently hosted its second annual Nursing Story Slam, an event that invites nurses from Penn to take center stage and share their personal stories before a live audience. The event provides a rare opportunity for the performing nurses to develop as science communicators and storytellers as they receive personalized coaching from First Person Arts, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that provides storytelling expertise to businesses and community organizations. “Events like the Nursing Story Slam are important for several reasons, it’s a great opportunity to showcase the amazing work nurses are doing daily,” said Marion.
Responding to this year’s theme of “Courage,” nine nurses with varying experiences took the stage to share how they have experienced or offered courage in their roles as nurses. One of the performers shared a powerful story about one of her colleagues who had the courage to voice that they were struggling after a challenging and haunting patient experience in their emergency room. This inspired her hospital to create a protocol that allows nurses and other healthcare workers to have the space to talk about what they are feeling after a difficult situation in the emergency room. The protocol expanded throughout their health system and has been making a much-needed impact in the labor and delivery department, helping nurses and doctors talk things through when there is a difficult experience.
“Nurses showcase courage in almost everything that they do, and these inspiring stories can help empower nurses to step out of their traditional comfort areas, enter spaces they don’t typically enter and create new solutions,” said Marion. “We hear constantly from nurses pursuing innovation that they don’t have the resources and don’t know what they are doing, so creating these communities can help nurses gain courage to take their ideas from the bedside—or wherever they may be—and scale them up.”
In addition to bringing innovation events and programs to its students, Penn Nursing believes it is vital for today’s nurses to have an education in design thinking, business and innovation so they can best champion themselves and their solutions. Marion is particularly proud of two groundbreaking classes offered through Penn Nursing.
Design Thinking for Health, created in partnership with the Rita and Alex Hillman Foundation, is a free online platform open to any nurse or nursing program; the platform provides the tools, resources and inspiration to help nurses learn the human-centered approach of design thinking to solve complex healthcare challenges. Launched in fall 2019, the course is designed for health systems and universities to leverage for their own nurse populations and features case studies from leading nurse innovators. Marion also teaches Innovation in Health: Foundations of Design Thinking, an interdisciplinary course at Penn that allows students from other departments like engineering and design to work alongside future nursing leaders in health and healthcare innovation.
“When most people think of a nursing curriculum, they aren’t thinking about incorporating design, business and tech. We’re trying to expand nursing education in these areas so when groups are looking at solving a problem in healthcare, they’re saying they can’t solve it without a nurse’s perspective,” said Marion. “However, one course does not make an innovator. If we want nurses to lead in healthcare innovation, there should be an innovation thread throughout all our curricula, and that’s what we’re aiming for at Penn Nursing.”
With the launch of Amplify Nursing and the Innovation Accelerator and the growth of their other courses and programs, it’s been an exciting year for Penn Nursing. But according to Marion and her team, their work has only just begun. Marion says there’s no lack of ideas at Penn Nursing for helping students and faculty see themselves as innovators and leaders.
“Next year, we’ll definitely be strengthening our current programs and offerings, but we’ll also be looking at new ways to educate our students and faculty on moving their ideas forward,” said Marion. “I feel really lucky to be a part of a faculty that is committed to elevating nurses as leaders and entrepreneurs in healthcare and beyond. We’re grateful to all our partners at Penn, in Philadelphia and throughout the nursing world helping us achieve our vision for nurses. Organizations such as the Rita and Alex Hillman Foundation, Johnson & Johnson, SONSIEL and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are all doing so much to raise the profile of nurses as innovators. There are so many people invested in creating a better future for nurses, and I can’t wait to see what we accomplish.”
To learn more about the innovative programs at Penn Nursing, visit their website here.
 The inaugural Nursing Story Slam was supported by The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation. The second Story Slam was supported by Penn Nursing Overseer Sandy Samberg, Nu’94, GNu’95 and her husband Joe Samberg.
 The Penn Nursing Innovation Accelerator was funded in part through the generosity of Carolyn E. Bennett, Nu’91, Seth M. Ginns, C’00, and Andrea B. Laporte, Nu’69.