Rachel Walker, PhD, RN, Wants Nurses to Tap into Their Innovative Spirit
When IV fluid-manufacturing plants in Puerto Rico were disabled by the devastating hurricanes that struck the island in 2017, there was a critical shortage of IV fluids, such as normal saline, across the United States. Messages from her Puerto Rican nurse colleagues navigating shortages of critical supplies in the aftermath of the hurricane, and prior experiences running out of IV fluids in the ER tent after the 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, led nurse innovator Rachel Walker, PhD, RN, and a team of other nurses, students, and engineers, to begin developing a portable, self-contained system that purifies water and generates essential IV fluids on-site.
Rachel, a former rural emergency medical and disaster relief worker and an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst College of Nursing, was the first nurse to be selected by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and The Lemelson Foundation as an AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador. Her passion for advocating for patients and nurses as leaders in healthcare innovation made her the perfect voice to kick off the opening ceremonies of the 2019 Oncology Nursing Society (ONS) Annual Congress as a keynote speaker with a speech that celebrated nurse inventors past and present and inspired oncology nurses to tap into their innovative spirit.
After introducing Rachel on the mainstage, Lynda Benton, Senior Director of Corporate Equity at Johnson & Johnson, who leads the Johnson & Johnson commitment to nurses, sat down with Rachel to learn more about her perspective on how nurses at every stage of their careers can better own their great ideas and make them reality.
During my keynote I shared stories of nurses throughout history who had been shut down or discouraged from pursuing great ideas but persevered - and I think those stories resonated with a lot of people in the room. Nurses like Mary Seacole, Dame Cicely Saunders, and Bessie Blount Griffin. Many nurses came up to me over the rest of the Congress to share their own experiences of not being “invited to the table” where decisions get made or hearing “no” to an idea for innovation they’d pitched. Several shared that they had always known their ideas and the needs they’d identified were important, but they hadn’t necessarily framed those ideas as innovations. In other words, they just saw what they were doing as part of their jobs as nurses. So having new language to name and claim what they are really doing – amplifying the voices of patients and communities and coming up with new ways to address those needs – can make a difference. Some said they planned to just start showing up to decision-making meetings they’d previously felt shut out of and to begin using that new language of invention going forward - especially when they hear the word, “no”! Now I’m excited for the stories I’ll hear at next year’s ONS Congress!
We need to make the value proposition of giving nurses the time and resources to be meaningfully involved in the development, evaluation, translation and scaling of their innovations clear to employers, policy makers, industry and the public. And we need to support involvement in innovation programs in ways that don’t just endlessly add onto nurses’ responsibilities without first making space. This will likely require capturing and clearly communicating the value of what nurses are already doing and the myriad intangible but critically important outcomes of appropriately supporting us to practice the art and science of our profession. Because nurses are already innovating – we always have, we always will. But our systems and structures make much of this work invisible to the public and to gatekeepers of power – including budgetary and staffing power – who are in a position to fundamentally change the system and make it more sustainable.
Usually when nurses come up with something we just want our idea to help people. So we readily share our ideas with the world. Which can be great, but learning about protections such as invention disclosures, licensing, and patents can also help nurses to avoid certain, unintended consequences of innovation, like having their ideas implemented by others in ways that are ultimately more harmful than helpful. Often medical centers and universities have “tech transfer offices” where people with expertise in this – like lawyers and patent experts- can provide support for navigating the complex world of intellectual property.
Historically, nurses have not been socialized to take credit for their innovations and even today there’s a perception that it is frowned upon. But nurses are vital storytellers and should tell the world about the impact of nursing and what we are capable of. This isn’t about tooting our own horn- by owning what we are doing and amplifying that message to the public and to policy makers, we are advocating for our patients and making visible all the ways that nurses are healing and transforming broken systems. If we just keep these stories to ourselves, we will continue to prop up systems that aren’t necessarily serving us or our patients, which perpetuates inequity for both our profession and the people we serve.
I also want to highlight that every nurse has the innate capacity to solve problems and bring ideas to the table. I want nurses to know that their ideas – their lived experiences – are valuable wherever they are, whatever their job title, whatever initials are next to their names. You offer a critical perspective as a nurse, you count, you should be heard, and you have a right to claim the identity of nurse innovator. Thank you for all that you are doing.
To stay up-to-date with how Walker is advocating for nurses, follow her on Twitter: @UMassWalker .