Female doctor touching a tablet displaying the patient's data hologram concept of electronic medical information and futuristic technology in health care
HealthJuly 12, 2021

Innovation and the nurse leader

By: Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN
Nursing has always been an innovative profession — by its very nature, such work requires nurses to constantly assess, evaluate, and find solutions to problems which may vary tremendously in an ever-changing environment.

One theory, known as diffusion of innovation, describes how and why new ideas are spread. Additionally, the theory examines the rate at which new ideas spread from person-to-person.

In many cases, hospitals and healthcare systems lag behind other industries when it comes to innovation. According to a recent article in Nursing Management, it takes an average of 17 years for an idea developed in research to make it into regular nursing practice. As a consequence, nurse leaders have rallied to find more creative and efficient processes that benefit not only their patients, but the healthcare system as a whole.

Challenges to innovation in nursing

Traditionally, nurses have not been on the front lines of innovation in healthcare — even though nurses use a myriad of equipment, document in electronic health records, and practice holistic patient care. But barriers to innovation have prevented many nurse leaders from achieving their creative potential. Generally, these barriers are centered around three things:

  • Nursing education focuses on clinical knowledge, missing the components of development and promotion of new ideas.
  • Nurses have been made to deal with the “pain points” of patient care instead of being seen as part of the solution.
  • Organizational hierarchies tend to use nurse engagement for buy-in instead of fostering and implementing problem solving solutions.

A changing nurse culture promoting innovation

As the Covid-19 pandemic swept the globe, it became more important than ever for nurse leaders to develop solutions to new, challenging problems in the healthcare system. These ideas ranged from 3D printing of personal protective equipment to the use of simulations to train nurses and nursing students in patient care.

Now, nurse leaders must ask themselves whether innovation is an activity or an impact within the healthcare industry. Indeed, implementing innovation is not just a skill set. It is also a mindset that drives the culture of innovation.

Nurse leaders can help build the system up to improve innovation. Such a system would limit barriers to innovation, improve efficiency, and have safe and rapid deployments at the end point of care. Leaders can stay future-focused by relying on a collection of group processes known as liberating structures.

Liberating structures are ultimately simple exercises promoting trust within a healthcare team to bring new ideas forward. They free up energy, tap into collective know-how, and stimulate creativity. Examples of liberating structures include:

  • Impromptu networking
  • Discovery and action dialogue
  • Integrated autonomy
  • Appreciative interviews
  • Generative relationships

There is no need for any training or special talent to use any liberating structure. But these exercises have already been seen to reshape clinical rounds, reduce hospital admissions, improve access to care, and prevent disease transmission.

Creating an innovative nursing work environment

A healthy, inclusive work environment is one in which innovation can thrive. Nurse leaders can help to improve the workplace by acting authentically and making decisions effectively. This may be achieved in many ways, such as:

  • Sharing ideas and listening to others’ ideas, even if they do not seem possible at first.
  • Leveraging some of the energy within the healthcare system to build innovation.
  • Looking outside nursing for other ideas that may be applied.
  • Carving out time in the practice environment for innovation.

There is no way to escape innovation in nursing — but it is possible to foster it and use it to find better, more effective ways of providing the highest quality patient care. Using liberating structures and creating a better work environment are key to promoting innovation within the nursing profession.

Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN
Freelance Health and Medical Content Writer, Wolters Kluwer Health
Sarah has over nine years’ experience in various clinical areas, including surgery, endocrinology, family practice, and pharmaceuticals. She began writing professionally in 2016 as a way to use her medical knowledge beyond the bedside to help educate and inform healthcare consumers and providers.
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