Support is growing to help nursing innovations come alive.
Rebecca Love, MSN, RN, ANP, was surprised — and somewhat dismayed — when she discovered she was the only nurse among 200 participants at a three-day healthcare “hackathon,” a collaborative event involving a variety of software development experts.
The event, hosted by Tufts University in Boston in 2014, was filled with physicians, medical students, programmers and engineers who formed teams to develop new ideas and learn more about the basic principles of launching a new product.
“It was revolutionary because it was like a mini-MBA,” said Love, who is passionate about helping nurses develop their entrepreneurial skills.
At the time, she was working as a nursing professor at Boston’s Bunker Hill Community College and a hospice nurse practitioner, when she decided to research hackathons in Massachusetts. She discovered although few nurses attended these events, the majority of groups that received awards had at least one nurse on the team.
“My hypothesis was that even though nurses represented a significant minority, their teams often won because they were on the front lines working with patients, so they knew what needed to change,” Love said.
She made it her mission to host a hackathon for nurses, finding the support she needed from Nancy Hanrahan, PhD, RN, FAAN, dean of Northeastern University School of Nursing in Boston. The school’s first hackathon in 2016 — which had 250 attendees — was so successful Hanrahan invited Love to work full time as the school’s first director of nurse innovation and entrepreneurship.
The importance of supporting nursing innovation is gaining momentum nationally and was part of this year’s theme for National Nurses Week in May. The American Nurses Association is calling nurses to inspire, innovate and influence.
“Nurses are natural inventors and problem solvers, and they are using their ideas to improve healthcare,” said ANA President Pam Cipriano, PhD, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN. “We have to raise the awareness that nurses truly have solutions if given the time and support to develop their ideas.”
Workarounds are another name for nursing innovations
To encourage nursing innovation, Northeastern University has hosted 22 events in the last 18 months, including hackathons focused on software-based ideas and a “makeathon” for designing new devices.
During these events, nurses have one minute to pitch an idea to hundreds of attendees. After hearing these pitches, participants decide which ideas they would like to develop, then form teams.
For the next 56 hours, the groups work with business-savvy professionals such as CEOs and marketing experts to create five to 10 slides and a working prototype. At the end of the event, teams demonstrate their products to judges, with the top three invited to join a Northeastern University program that provides mentoring and physical space to work on the project.
One winning team at the makeathon was inspired by a nurse’s idea to redesign the luer lock that connects a patient’s intravenous port to medication. For years, she had seen how the device increased the risk of pressure ulcers and skin breakdown in patients with fragile skin, such as infants and the elderly. Love could not divulge the details of the redesign because the patent for the product is pending, and two medical device companies have shown interest in producing it.
Northeastern University also has hosted Nurse SharkTank events where nurses can pitch their ideas to a team of investors who provide feedback on ways to further develop their products.
Love also helped to design the annual four-day Nurse Leadership & Entrepreneurship Certificate Program for nurses who are interested in learning how to form a business plan, anticipate trends in healthcare and present an idea to investors.
How organizations can support nurse inventors
Like Love, the dean of the University of Minnesota School of Nursing knew nurses had the potential to become influential inventors if they received support to develop ideas. “Nurses are very creative, and they will do anything to serve their patients, but sometimes these ideas get the label of ‘workaround’ instead of ‘innovation,’” said Connie Delaney, PhD, RN, FAAN, FACMI, FNAP, dean of the nursing school.
“We want nurses to see themselves as inventors, that their ideas could be a patentable invention,” Delaney continued.
In 2015, Delaney partnered with the school of nursing and Fairview Health Services to host a Planting Seeds of Innovation workshop at the University of Minnesota where nurses could hear from leaders in the field of innovation, including RNs who had successfully created new products. The attendees could share their ideas and gather feedback from investors and representatives from the school’s Earl E. Bakken Medical Devices Center and Office for Technology Commercialization. The workshop is now an annual event and has resulted in several patented innovations.
She saw children getting out of wheelchairs to walk in the hallways, but their intravenous tubing regularly dragged on the floor. A sophisticated bracket she developed that attaches the tubing to the wheelchair has been patented, with developers finalizing plans to manufacture the device.
Facilities that provide innovative environments
Hospitals also are recognizing the importance of supporting nurse innovation.
Among facilities leading the charge is Tufts Medical Center in Boston. The center is establishing a partnership with Northeastern University in hopes of launching a new program that will send nurses to the four-day entrepreneurship certificate program, said Judith Cullinane, MSN, RN, CCRN-K, executive director of nursing research, innovations, professional development and quality at Tufts Medical Center.
When the nurses return, they will be tasked with forming teams to develop the ideas. Groups that have promising concepts will receive mentoring from entrepreneurial experts, Cullinane said.
Finally, the teams will pitch their new products or technology to hospital leaders and research administrators, who will decide whether to provide further support and funding to patent and produce the invention.
In 2016, Massachusetts General Hospital started a similar program in which nurses with innovative ideas could apply to win one of two $5,000 grants from the hospital’s department of nursing. The money can be used for costs such as paying a manufacturer to produce a prototype.
Hiyam Nadel, BSN, MBA, RN, nursing director of obstetrics at the hospital, mentors the awardees for one to two years as they study the potential market for the invention, create a prototype and apply for a patent. As the hospital’s nursing innovation specialist, Nadel dedicates eight hours a week to supporting the nurse winners.
“There are so many good ideas that we have trouble choosing two winners,” said Nadel, who has entrepreneurial experience developing a device for women who suffer from incontinence.
One of the winners was motivated to reduce the central line-associated infection rates because the existing checklist nurses followed didn’t seem to be effective. She created a flip-chart system to replace the checklist. Another nurse is working on a product that will allow patients to have more privacy in the bathroom while also reducing their risk of falling.
Among the greatest rewards of coaching these inventors is seeing the excitement nurses experience when they use creativity to solve longstanding problems in clinical care, Nadel said.
“The solutions they develop are highly practical and impactful,” Nadel said. “A lot of nurses are leaving the bedside, and by empowering them as innovators, I think we can inspire more nurses to stay in the field.”