A nurse innovator is a nurse who specializes in bringing forth positive change in health care quality and equity by addressing the unmet needs of a target population through new products, processes, and services. Innovators have existed throughout the history of nursing which dates to the 19th century. Yet, the formalization of a ‘nurse innovator’ role has only begun to emerge within health care organizations across the U.S. over the last decade.
An innovator is an individual who leverages the science of innovation. Innovation science has theoretical and methodological roots in many disciplines, including (but not limited to) psychology, sociology, business, and engineering. Theorists such as Christensen, Von Hippel, Drucker, Ulwick, and Rogers have provided us with frameworks to explain the perceived mysteriousness of innovation in ways that allow for the development of more predictable, effective, and efficient new solutions needed in practice and the market.
An innovation can only emerge out of the work of an innovator or group of innovators. Knowing that Rogers’ diffusion of innovation theory identifies innovators as 2.5 percent of a population, the number of individuals who have the innate ability to drive change, void of formal education and experiential learning, is smaller than it could (or should) be.
Some historical examples of nurse innovators who transformed nursing and health care delivery include (but are not limited to) Mary Seacole, Clara Barton, and Anita Dorr. All three nurses identified gaps in care delivery that would negatively impact patient health outcomes if not addressed. Many other nurses have also made their marks by inventing new innovations while leveraging their innovative mindset.
Yet, instead of attributing the role of the nurse innovator to a select few that emerge throughout time, we have an opportunity today to consider educating our current and future nurses on the science of innovation to make an even greater impact on the health of our patients, families, communities, populations, and society at large. Suppose we, as a society, expect innovations to emerge to fix the many problems we face each day. In that case, we have an obligation to prepare nurses with an innovative mindset to become nurse innovators.
Preparing an innovative mindset extends beyond the current state of workarounds. Workarounds are pervasive in nursing and require innovative behaviors. However, workarounds are clues of organizational level gaps in need of sustainable and scalable solutions. We can leverage current nursing workarounds as exemplars to begin to frame the innovative mindset for the development of nurse innovators.
By developing the nursing workforce to be nurse innovators, these workarounds could become scalable and sustainable innovations that benefit the affected users (e.g., nurses, patients, families, doctors, health care professionals). Nurses create these workarounds because the current products, and/or processes have gaps in the user experience. Historically, over 70 percent of new innovations initially emerge from affected users. If this user-driven knowledge is combined with the existing practice of nurse-led workarounds, an understanding that innovation science can be taught at all levels of education, and a growing national strategic focus on innovation in health care, the timing is opportune to empower our nurses with the knowledge, skills, and abilities to innovate in health care.
To develop nurses as innovators, the profession will need to embrace innovation science as a necessary competency to improve health care quality and health equity. Workarounds should be seen for the innovative nursing behaviors that emerge to address organizational and systemic gaps within the health care system. Nursing will also benefit from an acceptance that innovation can and should be taught in formal education programs and can change the paradigm from viewing nurses as passive recipients of executing on physician orders to an empowered profession capable of making meaningful and sustainable change for the improvement of patient health and well-being.
At a health care organization and industry level, developing an initial infrastructure to facilitate innovation ideas to address opportunities is an initial first step. The infrastructure could resemble a designated council for nursing and health care innovation, an innovation unit, and/or a makerspace lab where ideas can be brought forward for discussion and development. Now is the time to equip every nurse with the knowledge and skills of innovation and the power to bring about the positive changes in health care that are needed to improve the health of our nation as well as transform our profession to address the pervasive systemic vulnerabilities within nursing and health care that were amplified and exposed during this enduring COVID-19 pandemic.
Tiffany Kelley is a nurse innovator.
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