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Leveraging the Nurse-Force to Drive Innovation

Updated: Jun 20

Doctor holding light bulb in hand

The most successful healthcare enterprises rely on nurses to drive innovation rather than just reviewing the innovations of vendors, consultants, or senior management. Many providers have formalized this innovation process by developing a number of processes that streamline the ideation process and more importantly, shorten the time of implementation without sacrificing safety.

History tells me that innovation in healthcare is much more challenging than in many other industries. The common challenge is that healthcare can be incredibly risk-averse at a number of levels, and that “do no harm” is taken quite literally when the innovation involves sick people.

For this reason, the incubation process must take on a number of forms that map with the ability of the institution to digest creativity and transformation.

Here are a few that I’ve learned about as I speak with nursing leaders around the country.

Nursing Hackathons

Many familiar with healthcare technology will recognize hackathons as a way of developing new computer processes and code for the betterment of the enterprise. Typically a hackathon team or individual is given a use case or an organizational challenge that needs to be solved. Although some Informatics Nurses may take part in a coding hackathon, the Nursing Hackathon is different in that they are typically an opportunity for nurses from the same provider or nurses from a number of providers to solve a healthcare issue that they all share whether technological or on the softer side of delivering care.

In this setting, teams will develop a solution, report on their group's findings, and in some cases have those innovations judged and awarded. In some formats, healthcare vendors are part of the hackathon structure and can provide grants for noteworthy innovations.

Nursing Shark Tanks

Never can one underestimate the role of competition in driving innovation. Surely it can and should happen organically. But anyone who’s been to a middle school science fair knows that bragging rights can produce some very impressive results.

This concept has not been lost on applying shark tank-style innovation competitions within healthcare. Not only has the concept gained traction in many providers, but there is a growth of fledgling businesses organizing competitions to better simulate the TV series.

Innovation typically loses steam especially after a major initiative saps the energy of key internal innovation agents. So, the fact that there is an annual shark tank competition keeps some of the momenta of grassroots creativity going through what would normally be innovation hiatuses.

From an HR point of view, the beauty of these competitions is that many employees who may typically be disenfranchised in the more extensive innovation processes are able to submit projects that had a positive effect on their small niche of the company. This also permits workers in groups not typically known for innovation to be paired with mentors in the organization.

Actually, some of the more interesting competitions focus on this grassroots innovation that has already occurred whether by design or organically.

One of my favorites is a competition sponsored by Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Innovation Hub. One of the most original grassroots innovations was an application using Google Glass.

Stephanie Shine is a nurse who wants to give patients the option to remotely participate in a newborn child’s care when the child is placed in the neonatal intensive-care unit (NICU), using the technology of Google Glass.

Shine’s idea was inspired by a personal story. She herself was a new mother separated for 18 hours from her baby, who at less than two pounds, was in the NICU. Her stress was slightly relieved when her relatives brought Google Glass with them and let her see her baby even as she sat as an in-patient in another part of the hospital.

All of these innovation competitions hinge on a culture of trust coupled with an ongoing risk-reward structure. Great pains must be taken not to make innovation the corporate equivalent of a “hallmark holiday week” that only happens once a year with great fanfare, and then evaporates.

While many providers have variants, the University of Washington School of Nursing and Dartmouth Hitchcock in New Hampshire quite literally have a Nursing Shark Tank where philanthropic organizations contribute to funding the winning ideas.

At the University of Florida College of Nursing five ‘sharks,’ representing nursing faculty from various disciplines, weighed in on each research proposal, offering students their suggestions on how each innovation could be translated to the clinical setting.

Vendor Innovation Partnerships

While many might be anxious about the commercial motives of vendors to be part of the innovation in healthcare organizations, the fact is that many commercial enterprises have an institutional or philanthropic mentality that transcends selling products.

Google Health for example partners with many providers and academic hospitals where they are able to push the limits of the products and services they sell. As Google states, “Combining our partners’ knowledge and experience, Google’s technological expertise, and patient insights, we are able to conduct critical research and work towards advanced healthcare solutions for individuals, caregivers, and health professionals.”

Amazon Scholars is a similar program whereby the company identifies areas of innovation within healthcare organizations and provides technical and mentoring support to bring those innovations to reality. Again many might feel that working with such companies is the proverbial “fox in the chicken coop”. But the reality is that because of workforce challenges in the most sophisticated healthcare deployments like Generative AI, providers actually depend on the innovative brainpower they don’t have in-house.

Regardless of how or where these transformation incubators embody themselves, nurses, like any innovators, need a safe place to test their ideas, and even more importantly a “safe place to fail” in order to assure an ongoing risk-reward culture.

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