Stay connected. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter.

The Future of Healthcare: Nurse-Driven Innovation

The best innovations in any industry often come from the inside and healthcare is no different. Doctors are a common sight in digital health, medtech, and health tech entrepreneurship because they know how the system works and what is needed to make it smoother.

Nurses are innovating every day - that is because the nursing process and the innovation process are one and the same. Nurses understand what it takes to empathetically understand the problem and what it takes to create a solution that accurately and effectively meets the end user's needs, wants, and desires. It is what nurses are educated to do.

Marion Leary, Director of Innovation at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing

On average, nurses spend about twice as much time with patients as doctors do – and they are often the ones actually interacting with medical devices like monitors and infusion pumps.

“Nurses work in all of the settings where health and healthcare occur, which means they are foundational to all innovation that happens in healthcare,” notes Marion Leary, Director of Innovation at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing.

Nurse Innovators in Healthcare

Feeding tubes. Ostomy bags. Emergency Resuscitation Cart. Color-coded IV lines. Innovative solutions that are now essential parts of routine medical care – all thanks to nurses looking to solve problems to meet patient needs that they encountered during their day. Nurses have a unique vantage point into patient needs, and their background in science and research make them excellent entrepreneurs or innovation leaders.

“Nurses are innovating every day - that is because the nursing process and the innovation process are one and the same. Nurses understand what it takes to empathetically understand the problem and what it takes to create a solution that accurately and effectively meets the end user's needs, wants, and desires. It is what nurses are educated to do,” explains Marion.

Entrepreneurial Customer Discovery

Customer discovery is the process of surveying individuals across the proposed industry ecosystem to explore and validate or invalidate the presence, size, depth, breath and impact of a problem in the environment. Successful customer discovery must begin without proposing a solution based on an entrepreneurial ‘hunch.’ That hunch or solution should come after the customer discovery process. Typically, at least 100 customer discovery interviews are recommended before an entrepreneur can declare the initial problem to be understood leading to consideration of the proposed potential solution.

Including nurses in the customer discovery process is not just a savvy move for entrepreneurs looking to break into the healthcare setting - it may also be the decision that makes or breaks a product’s success. Doctors may be enthusiastic about a product’s potential, but without nurse buy-in to use the device, an innovation is dead in the water.

“Without nurses engaged at the very beginning of the process, startups are just creating more solutions that most likely will not work in the healthcare environment,” warns Marion.

Nurses are not just advisors, though – they are innovators in their own right, and many of the qualities that make them good nurses also make them good inventors. “Nurses are continually assessing a 360-degree environment and seeking input from all stakeholders, diagnosing ‘what is needed’, implementing solutions, evaluating, iterating - all the while seeking the voice of the patient, other providers, and subject matter experts,” says Sandra Gomberg, former healthcare executive and startup founder.

The Current Landscape for Nurse Innovators

Nurses are positioned to become the entrepreneur themselves. However, the vantage point from the bedside does not always provide a clear line of sight to the tools, resources or education that a nurse might need to do his or her own customer discovery and take the next steps to developing a product.“Nurses have ideas every day on how to solve the plethora of problems we see in healthcare, but not all nurses have access to the resources, education, and mentorship that are needed to move an idea forward,” notes Marion.

Nurses navigate through baccalaureate, masters, and doctoral programs in pursuit of basic nursing degrees through specialty and advanced credentials. Nursing education programs must commit to prepare nurses at all levels of practice and education to be innovators and entrepreneurs at the bedside and in the startup ecosystem. To be recognized and supported as the leaders in the healthcare innovation space, nurses must gain and retain the skills and credentials to navigate that journey.

“Nurses are the glue that hold the healthcare system together and are responsible for significant changes in the system that relate to patient safety and improved health. They are innovating daily with workarounds and need to have a larger presence in that space,” says Donna S. Havens, PhD, RN, FAAN, Connelly Endowed Dean and Professor, Villanova University M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing. “Our innovation culture takes a multifaceted approach. For example, we start with first year nursing students and prep them for the University’s Idea Challenge – I am proud to share that nursing students took home the award. Faculty lead teams participating in our Nursing Innovation Challenge designed to foster creative solutions that address pertinent nursing and health issues, and in our simulation center we partner with industry to beta test products. To help us in this transformation, advance knowledge and partnerships for innovation, we have brought in Rebecca Love as our inaugural Howley Family Visiting Professor in Healthcare.”

Transforming the Future: Necessary Changes for Nurse Innovation

Research shows that nursing innovation doesn’t just lead to better outcomes for patients: it also leads to better outcomes for nurses. A 2018 study found that allowing innovative behavior to thrive in nursing led to better job productivity, lower levels of job burnout, higher job satisfaction, and more organizational efficiency. This is significant, considering that COVID-19 exacerbated the trend of nurses leaving the profession. So how can we better set the stage for innovation to happen?

Incorporating innovation into nursing curriculums is an important first step in breaking down the roadblocks to success. Sometimes, the barrier to entry for innovation is simply believing that it can be done. Nursing education tends to focus on clinical experience and learning how to do everything, without encouraging the development of new ideas and fresh approaches to how nursing can be done. Some schools, like the University of Pennsylvania, are developing programs that actively encourage nurse innovation – like Innovation Accelerator, which provides up to $10k for research and development of a proposed innovation idea.

Makerspaces represent another crucial next step. MIT spinout MakerHealth, for example, provides training and resources to encourage nurses to become makers. As a result, nurses are improving existing medical devices used on the job – and even creating new ones. A similar project in the Netherlands, Create4Care, found that creating an intentional nurse makerspace helped solve a common problem: nurses assumed the process of introducing their product to a mass market would be too time consuming. Research found that developing an innovation ecosystem – Create4Care - that largely takes over the innovation and diffusion process adequately solved that issue.

“There are nursing organizations like the Society of Nurse Scientists, Innovators, Entrepreneurs, and Leaders (SONSIEL), Johnson & Johnson Nursing, and the American Nurses Association Enterprise Innovation, which have resources, programs, and funding to support nurses in health and healthcare innovation.”

Nurse-Driven Innovation: Healthcare’s Future

Startups must engage nurses as a key part of the customer discovery process – not just doctors. By engaging nurses early and often, startups can gain valuable insights that might otherwise be overlooked, leading to more practical and user-friendly solutions. This inclusive approach can ultimately drive more successful innovations in healthcare.

And for nurses who are ready to innovate today, resources are out there: they may just take a bit of work to uncover. “Nurses who are out there innovating right now, you are not alone. There are a variety of resources, organizations, and individuals ready to help you take your idea to the next level. Find your community either on LinkedIn or in real life,” recommends Marion.

To harness the full potential of nurse-driven innovation, it is crucial to provide adequate support and resources. By integrating entrepreneurship into nursing education, creating nurse-focused makerspaces, and recognizing nurses as essential contributors to healthcare innovation, we can drive meaningful advancements in patient care. Empowering nurses to innovate not only enhances the healthcare system but also enriches the nursing profession itself