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Getting Nursing Students Involved in ‘Hackathons’

By: By Marion Leary and Jonathan Zhu

When nursing students are exposed to active learning, innovation events such as hackathons, they begin to understand how they can solve problems in health and healthcare in a very different way. Using processes like design thinking, and collaborating with designers, engineers, entrepreneurs, as well as other nurses from around the globe, exposes them to ideas and possibilities unimaginable with just traditional learning. The guest article below from my nursing student colleague, Jonathan Zhu, from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing (Penn Nursing) explains his first-ever experience at a hackathon and why it’s important for nursing students to participate in these types of events.

Below Jon describes his experiences participating in the NurseHack4Health earlier this year, sponsored by SONSIEL, Johnson & Johnson, and Microsoft. If you are a nursing student, a nurse, engineer, designer, or just interested in helping to build a sustainable nursing workforce of the future, the next NurseHack4Health is happening on November 5-7, 2021. You can register for this free event here:


Nursing innovation is one of the most intriguing topics in the world of nursing today. This year, the American Nurses Foundation is granting $15 million to up to 11 innovative pilot programs through The Reimagining Nursing Initiative, with aims to redefine nursing practice through enhanced education, improved technology implementation, and direct reimbursement models. This ambitious project is just one of many spearheading a new generation of nursing practice, capitalizing on the versatile and unique skillset of nurses to influence practice on a larger scale. However, despite the limitless potential and excitement of clinical innovation, many nursing students still face one critical issue: how can they quickly transition from a clinical-oriented curriculum to innovative health projects? The answer: nurse hackathons.

Nurse hackathons are a great environment for nurses and nursing students who are new to innovation to get a taste of what the design thinking process entails. This past year saw one of the most successful nurse hackathons ever hosted. Following the transition to a virtual platform last year due to COVID, this year’s virtual NurseHack4Health attracted over 700 registrants from all over the world. Despite this tremendous interest, only a handful of nursing undergraduate students were present. As one of those nursing students, here were some of my takeaways and reasons why I think more students should give hackathons a shot.

  1. What is a nurse hackathon?

At first glance, hackathons may seem like foreign territory to nursing students: how can we possibly get involved without coding or developer skills? The word “hackathon” is typically associated with topics such as engineering, computer science, coding, and software development. However, nurse hackathons are interdisciplinary environments where nurses/nursing students can feel comfortable sharing their expertise and opinions. With the help of a few developers, each team can combine the clinical knowledge that nurses bring to the table with engineering or development-related aspects to bring an innovative idea to life.

The hackathon event itself usually takes place over the span of 2-3 days, starting on Friday evening and ending on Sunday afternoon. While the format of each hackathon can vary, there are a few general processes that usually occur. For NurseHack4Health, the initial stage consisted of problem pitching, where participants stated the populations and issues that they wanted to innovate for. From there, attendees could join teams based on either a specific issue they want to work on, or a general topic that they are interested in. These teams had around 2 days to work on developing a low-fidelity prototype that they would eventually present to a panel of judges.

2. How can a nursing student’s perspective can be helpful on a team of nurses and developers?

Marion and Jon
Marion Leary and Jon Zhu

As a nursing student, trying to contribute on a team filled with seasoned nurses, advanced-practice nurses, and developers can be very intimidating at first. When I participated in NurseHack4Health, I felt a little lost initially and was unfamiliar with many of the terms being discussed. That night, I spent around an hour doing extra research to catch myself up on our topic, caregiver support. This initial research can be very important for understanding the context of the problem, especially if you are not familiar with the topic. Luckily, nursing students are in a great position to quickly absorb new knowledge, given our rigorous coursework. On my team, I was able to conduct research when necessary and share it with the other members, which was an effective way to ensure that everyone was on the same page.

Additionally, nursing students can also provide a fresh perspective on many topics. While nurses who have worked in industry for a long time will have valuable insights to offer, there can also be elements of the solution that they forget to consider. For example, one of the nurses on my team worked in oncology and was very passionate about providing physical and mental support for exhausted caregivers. This aspect ended up being one of the core components of our solution, but I also suggested that we develop ideas for caregiver education and socialization amongst caregivers. As we talked through what a caregiver support platform might look like, we decided to include all three of those ideas to provide a more robust support system.

Finally, it is also important to consider that most nurses who participated in the hackathon are new to nursing innovation, so everyone is working through the learning curve of design thinking together. Nursing students may not have as much clinical experience as nurses, but the innovation space provides a fresh opportunity for everyone.

3. Why is it important for more nursing students to participate in nurse hackathons?

While nursing school and the path to becoming a nurse is typically thought of as a linear process, the reality is that a nursing education enables so many avenues to branch out and explore new areas. Nurses can engage in clinical research, influence healthcare-altering policy, work in healthcare management, affect public health, and so much more. In all of these sectors, nurses can use their clinical knowledge and creativity to affect change at a large scale. As a nursing student, I feel like I entered my undergraduate learning with an expectation that I would work in a clinical setting for my entire career. However, participating in a nurse hackathon for the first time helped me see the design thinking process in action for the first time, and how nurses are optimally positioned to take advantage of it.

In addition, I was also able to network and engage with many nurses from all sorts of different clinical backgrounds. This was one of the highlights of NurseHack4Health for me, as hearing their stories helped me feel more reassured that I would be able to find my niche in nursing in my future career. It was also very inspiring to hear their different paths into and motivations for nursing, as well as the keynote event. I still remember a powerful quote from Rear Admiral Aisha Mix: “bring your own chair, and if necessary, create your own table.” Those words really resonated with me, as while the role of nurses can often be overlooked, nursing students can be even more overlooked if we fail to make our presence felt and actively seek out opportunities.

4. What does innovation mean to me/Why did I want to get involved in this space?

As a nursing student who is still relatively new to nursing innovation, it is amazing just how much my involvement in this space has broadened my view of nursing as a profession. Nurses are not just people in scrubs who take vitals, change dressings, press buttons on an IV machine, or give medications. Nurses are critical thinkers, patient advocates, problem solvers, and so much more. These elements perfectly lend themselves to innovation, which is why the nursing process and design thinking process are so similar (The Innovation Cycle and the Nursing Process- They Go Together!).

Getting involved in nursing innovation also helped me realize the value of nursing organizations and communities. Nurses often innovate in “silos” without even realizing it, as they navigate through all the obstacles that present themselves in a typical day of care. When nurses come together and share these experiences, the potential for broader advancements in healthcare is immense. SONSIEL (Society of Nurse Scientists, Innovators, Entrepreneurs, and Leaders) is a great example of this, as its events, services, and programs have facilitated the advancement of nurse-led innovation in so many ways. In this environment, members can share ideas with one another, and also easily reach out to experts in different specialties. Seeing how these relationships can lead to amazing developments in healthcare has been enlivening and makes me excited to participate in more hackathons in the future.

Nurse-led innovation is continuing to grow at a rapid pace with the support of universities, such as Penn Nursing, as well as organizations such as Johnson & Johnson, SONSIEL, Microsoft, and more. Nurse hackathons offer a great avenue for nursing students to get a sense of how clinical knowledge can be translated into innovative new designs that impact nursing practice on a larger scale. They also offer a great network of professionals and mentors to connect with and learn from. Through experiencing the immense potential of nursing innovation, nursing students can learn to redefine their view of nursing, and ultimately, to one day redefine the future of nursing.

The views and opinions expressed by My Nurse Influencer contributors are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or recommendations of the American Nurses Association, the Editorial Advisory Board members, or the Publisher, Editors and staff of American Nurse Journal. These are opinion pieces and are not peer reviewed.

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