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The new normal: Nurses as innovators

By: Catherine Spader, RN

Nurses are leading the way to healthcare’s future.


  • Nurses with innovation expertise have opportunities to develop, test, and implement products and processes to improve care.
  • Nurses have been frontline innovators during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Healthcare organizations and private and public companies are looking for nurse innovators.

Did you know that the crash cart, feeding tube, pediatric pain scale, and neonatal phototherapy were all invented by nurses? Nurses always have been innovators, and now is the time for them to formalize and systematize their ideas to help transform healthcare.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating innovation, and we will see the empowerment of nurses as innovators in this new era,” says Ryan J. Shaw, PhD, RN, associate professor and director of the Health Innovation Lab at Duke University School of Nursing in Durham, NC.

Doors are opening for nurses with innovation expertise who can develop, test, and implement new and improved products and processes to promote health and deliver optimal care. This includes spearheading effective new solutions for health inequity, streamlining work processes, and improving the patient experience.

Nurse innovators step up to COVID-19

At Duke University, RNs, nurse practitioners (NPs), and student nurses are making a timely impact in the fight against COVID-19 through the use of the Duke Health Innovation Lab. When the pandemic accelerated in North Carolina, a group of nurses, nursing students, physicians, and engineers formed the COVID-19 Design Engineering Team. The team identified some of the most pressing pandemic challenges, such as the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), and brainstormed solutions. Then they collaborated to develop and build protypes of new healthcare products and delivery processes.

In one project, the engineers used a 3D printer to create face shields for healthcare workers. Then 24 RNs, NPs, and physicians with intensive care unit (ICU) training tested them in the lab to produce data that the engineers used to improve the design. “We needed to evaluate the prototype quickly, so we could develop the next version as soon as possible,” Shaw says. “The lab allowed us to accelerate testing and helped to promote a better product.”

The face shields were put into clinical use in April 2020 at Duke University Health System. The team also launched telepresence robots in one of the ICUs at Duke’s hospitals. The robots allow staff to have a virtual audio and video presence with patients from outside their rooms. Robots consist of iPads on wheels that are operated by staff remotely from a computer.

“It’s a supplement to physically going into a patient’s room and fosters more communication without having to don PPE,” Shaw says. “It also reduces exposure to healthcare workers and minimizes use of critically needed supplies.”

Shaw believes the COVID-19 pandemic has been a big impetus to develop telepresence robots, which have potential in many other settings, such as in primary care practices and home care. “We are moving into a new normal with innovative ways to deliver healthcare, including a new era of providing telehealth, and nursing will be a big part of that innovation,” Shaw says.

Nursing innovation opportunities abound

Doors are opening for innovative nurses to lead as entrepreneurs who want to start their own businesses and as intrapreneurs who want to pioneer change in their workplaces and throughout healthcare, according to Tiffany Kelley, PhD, MBA, RN, DeLuca Foundation Visiting Professor for Innovation and New Knowledge at the University of Connecticut School of Nursing in Storrs. “If there was ever a time that we need to think innovatively and share those ideas, that time is now,” she says.

Roles are emerging in healthcare systems and private industry for nursing innovation specialists and officers. Innovation skills are essential for nurses in healthcare leadership roles, and private industry also is looking for nurses with innovation expertise. For example, pharmacies can benefit from adding healthcare innovators to their strategic vision. This includes reimagining how consumers can receive their medications, such as innovative ways to address transportation barriers.

Public and private companies and government agencies also need nurses with innovation and information technology expertise. These include the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC). ONC employs innovative nurses and healthcare professionals to work on key issues related to electronic health information exchange and interoperability in the evolving nationwide system. Large technology companies also are engaged in healthcare challenges, from cloud-based architecture, such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, to Uber Health, which provides rides to healthcare appointments.

“Innovation is about problem solving to address unmet needs and make a positive impact for a large volume of people,” says Kelley, who also is founder/chief executive officer of Nightingale Apps (which is working to provide mobile apps to hospital nurses) and iCare Nursing Solutions (which provides health­care informatics consulting). “Innovation is fundamental to nurses’ everyday practice, and there is demand for nurses who can expand that fundamental skill from one nurse’s ‘work­around’ idea to large-scale solutions that can effectively address local, national, and even global challenges.”

For information about getting the education you need for a career in nursing innovation, read the education article on page 4.

Catherine Spader is an author and healthcare writer based in Littleton, Colorado.

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