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Nursing News HighlightsNurses Leading Innovation

Reimagining a Workplace Where Nurses Thrive: Meet the Pitch-A-Thon Awardees

Meet the Pitch-A-Thon Awardees promo graphic
Nurse-led, multidisciplinary health system teams took center stage to pitch their solutions for redesigning a healthcare workplace where nurses and other health care professionals can thrive. From staffing technology to new care delivery models and creative resources for mental health and well-being, these meaningful solutions address foundational workplace challenges to create a healthcare system where exciting career paths are defined, skillsets develop and flourish, and the well-being of health workers is a top priority.

Editor's Note
Watch the NurseHack4Health Pitch-A-Thon Event and the finalist pitches here.

Representing the transformative power of nurse-led innovation, three health system teams were awarded a total of $260,000 in grant funding in the first-ever NurseHack4Health Pitch-A-Thon.

Presented by Johnson & Johnson, SONSIEL – Society of Nurse Scientists, Innovators, Entrepreneurs, & Leaders, Microsoft, and grant funding provided by #FirstRespondersFirst and ALL IN: Wellbeing First for Healthcare, the Pitch-A-Thon focused on unleashing the power of nurses as innovative leaders, working within multidisciplinary teams of clinicians, engineers, HR leaders and beyond, to design new solutions supporting a healthy workplace environment.

The following awardees will receive grant funds from #FirstRespondersFirst to bring the following solutions to life:
- NYU Langone, Smart Scheduler, a tech solution driving fairness and efficiency in staffing
- Geisinger, Paws to Reflect, a peer intervention and animal-assisted therapy program
- Children’s Hospital Orange County, Dear Hospital, connection-based storytelling training

Nearly 40 teams submitted solutions that directly address well-being and workplace challenges across four evidence-based workforce wellbeing focus areas:
- Flexibility & Autonomy: Empowering clinicians to leverage all their skills.
- Improve Efficiency: Getting rid of unnecessary processes and building a better environment.
- Staffing Support: Considering radical ideas to get frontline teams the help they need.
- Adequate Well-Being Resources: Thinking beyond the Employee Assistant Programs (EAP) to support staff

On October 6, ten finalist teams pitched their solutions to a panel of judges in an exciting live, virtual event. The notable panel of judges comprised Rear Admiral Aisha Mix, l, Assistant Surgeon General, Chief Nurse Officer, USPHS, Shekhar Saxena, Professor of the Practice of Global Mental Health at the Department of Global Health and Population, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health; Kristopher Bough, Program Director, Small Business & Technology Program, National Institute of Nursing Research; Omar Lateef, President & CEO, Rush University Hospital; Julie Kennedy Oehlert, Chief Experience Officer, Vidant Health; and Gay Landstrom, Chief Nursing Officer, Trinity Health.

“I was so inspired by the Pitch-A-Thon awardee teams, who brought real-world experience and innovation to their reimagining of a healthy workplace environment,” said Lynda Benton, Senior Director, Johnson & Johnson Nursing. “Words matter. It’s time to stop using transactional language about recruiting and retaining nurses and instead focus on redesigning the work environment so that the nursing workforce can flourish and thrive. This Pitch-A-Thon is designed to tap into the insights of nurses living it every day, working in collaboration with interdisciplinary colleagues to define what a healthy work environment could be.”

Meet the awardees and learn more about their innovative solutions below.

Driving fairness & efficiency in nurse scheduling


Smart Scheduler
Focus area: Improve efficiency and environment
NYU Langone, New York, NY

Kathleen DeMarco
Kathleen DeMarco

Nurse staffing presents significant challenges to the nursing workforce, compounded by increased patient complexity, rising healthcare costs, an aging population, and increasing workforce shortages.

It’s a vicious cycle — poor staffing levels drive dissatisfied nurses out, which leaves less nurses to staff. Co-led by Kathleen DeMarco and Ilana Springer Borkenstein, the team at NYU Langone aims to change the narrative with the Smart Scheduler.

The Smart Scheduler can be a great equalizer for nurse staffing, Springer says. With self-generated data from nurses, the app will automate nurse scheduling to optimize for experience mix, nurse preferences, and fair distribution of switches. The tool publishes a dashboard with each schedule so that nurses have insight into these analytics. Nurses can also leverage the tool’s built-in feedback loop to share their concerns, feedback, or future requests with their manager. No other solution builds fairness and transparency into the foundation of nurse scheduling or uses nurse-provided data to inform the process, the team says.

Ilana Springer Borkenstein
Ilana Springer Borkenstein

The idea for the Smart Scheduler came while Springer worked as a full-time staff nurse on a bone marrow transplant unit. One of the most experienced nurses on her floor made a deliberate effort to balance the unit’s schedule based on experience-level, seniority, personalities, and preferences. It kept the team satisfied, but the process was tedious, time consuming, and done manually. As Springer heard anecdotes about turnover on other units due to unsustainable work-life balance, poor schedules, and frequent callouts, she wondered if it would be possible to essentially productize the thoughtful approach to scheduling that worked so well on her unit.

Both frontline nurses and managers benefit from the Smart Scheduler. Nurses provide direct input into their schedules, which creates more autonomy, improves morale, and promotes work-life balance. Managers save dozens of administrative hours that could otherwise be spent directly supporting nurses. The tool also fosters new and recurring lines of communication between nurses and managers, giving managers insight into nurses’ individual needs and enabling them to personalize their outreach and support.

The NYU Langone team will use grant funding across three years to launch the Smart Scheduler for 500 nurses and add new features as they expand to new cohorts across the system.

Team: Kathleen DeMarco, MSN, NE-BC, CPHQ, RN; William Winfree, MHA; Ilana Springer, MBA, BSN, RN; Eric Gruskin, MBA.

Peer Intervention Meets Animal-Assisted Therapy 


Paws to Reflect
Focus Area: Support nurse well-being
Geisinger, Danville, PA

Led by Dawn Snyder, Paws to Reflect is an innovative, empathetic response to the persistent nursing challenges of burnout, trauma, exhaustion, and grief. Aimed at the nurses within the Geisinger, Paws to Reflect is a peer intervention method designed to create a psychologically safe space for nurses.

Dawn Snyder
Dawn Snyder

Paws to Reflect combines peer support with traditional animal-assisted therapy, both of which have been proven to reduce nurse burnout, depression, anxiety, and stress, as well as enhance hospital team well-being and psychological safety. Peer supporters trained in psychological first aid will team up with certified pet therapy dogs and their handlers to directly support frontline nurses in real-time, an intervention well-received and requested by the surveyed frontline population.

The Geisinger Pitch-A-Thon team
The Geisinger Pitch-A-Thon team

Sustainability is built into Paws to Reflect. Compared to other health systems’ pet therapy programs, Paws to Reflect is people-centric and aimed at its internal nurse workforce and external communities. It creates a supportive workplace for Geisinger’s nurse staff through direct emotional support and enables meaningful and tangible community engagement through volunteer opportunities. With its existing nurse leadership buy-in, Paws to Reflect has the potential to provide healing support to those working to heal others.

“Pet therapy was the most requested program from our frontline population,” says Snyder. “Paws to Reflect is a nurse-centric program with an emphasis on outstanding peer support.”

Grant funding would enable Paws to Reflect to recruit 50 additional dog handlers and provide three-year certification scholarships, and purchase uniforms for handlers and dogs, accessories, and supplies. As the handlers and peer supporters are volunteers, the grant would be sufficient to sustain Paws to Reflect in the short-term and long-term.

Team: Dawn Snyder, MSN, RN; Brittany Drumm, MBA; Stephanie Andreacci, LCSW; Casey Marfitt; Tina McDowell

Building Connections through Storytelling into the Workplace


Dear Hospital: Connecting through Storytelling
Focus area: Support nurse well-being
Children’s Hospital of Orange County, Orange, CA

For nurses, person-to-person connection with peers is a critical component of resilience. 

 “I have been a pediatric critical care nurse for over 20 years,” says Jennifer Hayakawa, director of nursing research and innovation at Children’s Hospital of Orange County. “For me, the best part of being a nurse is also the hardest. Caring for people when they are their most vulnerable – holding their hand through their most difficult moments – it’s a privilege, but it can also be exhausting. I carry on my shoulders and in my heart the stories of many of my patients. I turn to my community of fellow nurses for support.” 

 Inspired by a partnership between the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) and storytelling organization Dear World, Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) proposes to leverage the storytelling program Dear Hospital into an enterprise-wide movement that will change CHOC’s culture. Led by Hayakawa, the program is designed to unlock “powerful individual stories in the organization to develop stronger connections among our people.” 

The Children’s Hospital of Orange County Pitch-A-Thon team
The Children’s Hospital of Orange County Pitch-A-Thon team

Dear Hospital recognizes that health systems are built and maintained by people and their stories, and by engaging nurse leaders and staff, the Dear Hospital program would develop and activate storytelling skills throughout the organization with a “train the trainer” model. The program builds upon data showing that more than 80 percent of storytelling participants “felt a stronger sense of belonging” and felt more engaged in their organization. Over time, the goals are to not only create a storytelling culture among existing CHOC nurses and staff, but also integrate this program into the onboarding of new personnel.

With grant funding, Children’s Hospital of Orange County would be able to license 10 Dear Hospital storytellers who would reach 5,000 associates and providers over a one-year pilot program. The team supporting this effort spans the entire organization and includes representatives from Nursing, Physician Leadership, Marketing, Patient Experience, Human Resources, Belonging, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Team: Jennifer Hayakawa, Director of Nursing Research and Innovation; Melanie Patterson, Vice President, Patient Care Services, Chief Nursing Officer; Charles Golden, Assistant Chief Medical Officer, VP and Executive Medical Director; Cynthia Neiman, VP, Chief Marketing & Experience Officer; Claire Driscoll, Manager, Human Resources Business Partner; Sharonne Herbert, Belonging, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer; Jodi Bepler, Senior Manager, Sales Operations, Dear World.


As Pitch-A-Thon awardees, Geisinger, NYU Langone and Children's Hospital of Orange County will receive grant funding from #FirstRespondersFirst and an invitation to join #FirstRespondersFirst’s grantee network, a peer-to-peer community of practice with access to healthcare workforce well-being resources and experts to help advance their innovations forward. To learn more about the NurseHack4Health Pitch-A-Thon, click here. To learn more about the Johnson & Johnson commitment to supporting a workplace culture where nurses thrive, click here.

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