Sep 15 2021

Q&A: HealthTech Influencer Marion Leary on the Importance of Innovation in Nursing

Leary, director of innovation at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, says nurses can make great innovation leaders.

Nurses are essential to the successful delivery of care and creating good patient experiences, which is why their voices must be included in higher-level discussions at healthcare organizations. Nurses’ work styles also make them uniquely qualified to be innovation leaders within their spaces, says Marion Leary, director of innovation at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, where she’s also a doctoral student.

Leary is host of Penn’s Amplify Nursing podcast, which features conversations with nurses leading the way in nursing science, policy and innovation. She spoke with HealthTech about why innovation is important for nursing and problem-solving in healthcare.

HEALTHTECH: How did you end up in the nursing field and what drew you to innovation?

LEARY: I was always really interested in research and science and had seen a brochure from our local university, Thomas Jefferson University, about nursing research, and it really intrigued me. I lived in Boston for a while and had worked with a visiting nurse who was just seriously one of the smartest, most compassionate people I had ever encountered. It was because of that interaction with that nurse that I thought that nursing might be a career I’d want to get into, but I never wanted to be a clinician. I never really wanted to do bedside nursing. When I saw that brochure about being a nurse researcher, I knew it was the best of all worlds. So, I went to school at Thomas Jefferson University, got my bachelor’s in nursing, and then I worked in the medical ICU for a short period of time before starting my career as a resuscitation researcher.

That’s really where I got into innovation and technology. I was doing resuscitation research for over a decade, and it was closer to the end of my career as a resuscitation researcher, where I started trying to think about how we could improve training and education for clinicians as well as lay responders. When somebody has a sudden cardiac arrest out in public, and we have just the general public who respond, how we could potentially make our CPR training sessions much more effective and efficient using technology to enhance the training that we were doing? That’s where my interest in the innovation technology really began.

READ MORE: Why nurses are key to a strong health IT strategy.

HEALTHTECH: What does innovation in nursing mean to you? What does that look like for you?

LEARY: How we define innovation at Penn Nursing is really the creation of something new or the use of something already in existence that adds value. We’re not solely talking about technologies. It’s really the systems and processes we create, the methodologies we use to solve problems, and how we communicate with our patients, their families, each other and the community at large. All those things can be done through an innovation framework.

HEALTHTECH: What led you to this point in your career after wrapping up your resuscitation research and what are you planning next?

LEARY: I have a master’s in nursing and a master’s in public health, so I’ve been teaching a research course for undergrad senior nursing students Penn Nursing. I was really interested in innovation, and I thought from my work in resuscitation that nurses should be leading in the innovation space. It really fit nicely with all the work that we do. The nursing process and the innovation process are so very similar, and it just seems like health and healthcare innovation was a space where nurses could thrive.

Luckily, at the time, Penn Nursing was starting to think about innovation as well, and so I was fortunate enough to talk with the leaders there about my interest in nursing-led innovation and their interest in innovation, and it sort of just worked out that they bought a day of my time. At the time, I was still in my resuscitation science role, so they bought out a percentage of my time to start exploring what a nursing innovation curriculum and program at Penn Nursing would look like, and then it just exploded. I came over two days a week, then three days a week, and then they hired me full time as their first director of innovation.

Marion Leary
The nursing process and the innovation process are so very similar, and it just seems like health and healthcare innovation was a space where nurses could thrive.”

Marion Leary Director of Innovation, University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing

I sort my current role into three buckets. The first is educating our faculty, staff and students on innovation, what that means at Penn Nursing, what it means in health and healthcare, and how we can use different methodologies in the innovation space to solve problems. The second bucket is collaborating across both the innovation and entrepreneurship community at Penn in Philadelphia and across the nursing and healthcare profession. The third bucket is amplifying nurses as leaders in health and healthcare innovation.

We host a Penn Nursing Innovation Accelerator where we provide funding, mentorship and education to faculty and staff who want to take an innovative idea and scale it up. I teach a couple of classes on innovation in health and design thinking. We’ve created a free online open-access platform for nurses anywhere in the world to use to learn about these methodologies and how they can apply it to their practice.

HEALTHTECH: Could you expand on why nurses are a good fit to be leading innovation in their spaces?

LEARY: I’m going to preface this by saying that this is something a colleague of mine mentioned to me. We created a platform called Design Thinking for Health, which is an open-access, free platform that nurses can use to learn about design thinking. On that platform, we have case study videos of nurse innovators, and one of those case study interviews is with Dr. Kathy Bowles, who’s at Penn Nursing. She said in her video that the nursing process and the innovation process go very nicely together because they’re the same.

For the nursing process, you’re assessing the patient, determining the problem, planning, intervening and evaluating. It‘s the same thing as the design thinking process, where you’re understanding the problem, and the empathy phase, where you’re defining the problem based on those insights, brainstorming, ideating, coming up with a solution, creating that solution in the prototype phase. And then you’re testing it. It matches up so perfectly well with the nursing process that it just fits. It’s what we’re doing in nursing. We just are calling it different things.

HEALTHTECH: What has your experience been with health IT throughout your career?

LEARY: I help with a program called NurseHack4Health. It is a virtual hackathon that’s sponsored by Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft and the nursing organization that I’m a member of, called the Society of Nurse Scientists, Innovators, Entrepreneurs & Leaders. We focus on IT and tech solutions for problems nurses are seeing. This started originally due to the pandemic. We really wanted nurses to be able to come up with solutions to problems they were seeing at the height of the pandemic back in 2020. So, working virtually on the team’s platform, we hosted a few different hackathons where nurses could use different health technologies to create solutions.

HEALTHTECH: What are some of the greatest challenges you see nurses facing today?

LEARY: One of the biggest challenges right now is nurse burnout. Nurses are leaving the bedside at high rates, partly because of the strain of the pandemic, partly because of the way nurses are situated in the healthcare environment. Figuring out ways to keep nurses at the bedside is one of the big issues right now.

MORE FROM HEALTHTECH: How technology can alleviate effects of the nursing shortage.

I’m not a clinician, so I’m thinking about how we can use innovation to improve the way that we’re educating our nursing students, how they’re thinking about problems when they leave the higher ed institutions and go out into the workforce. There are a lot of things we can do.

HEALTHTECH: Which technologies do you see changing the field of nursing for the better?

LEARY: There’s a big push right now for the use of virtual and augmented reality in nursing education. A lot of my resuscitation science work for a couple years was looking at using those types of technologies for training and education. I think they have a place in education, especially to be able to heighten realism and to let students understand what it’s like in certain situations using those technologies. I think there’s a space for thinking about more ways to use those types of technology. I know that our simulation center at Penn Nursing is using virtual reality for the training of undergrad students, and I know other institutions are doing that as well.

DISCOVER: How VR simulation training is set to change nursing education.

HEALTHTECH: Could you speak more about design thinking and human-centered design, and how you see that impacting the field of nursing?

LEARY: A lot of people now are really investing in nurses as leaders in innovation and human-centered design. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine just put out its “The Future of Nursing 2020–2030” report. One of the big takeaways is that they are recommending that nurses be educated in human-centered design thinking and to be able to acquire an innovation mindset.

I think it’s really important that when we’re thinking about nursing education, yes, we definitely need to educate our nursing students on all the physiology, pharmacology and clinical skills, but we also need to be thinking about and preparing them for how to understand a problem and how to solve that problem using this methodological approach of human-centered design and design thinking, so that we can make changes to the plethora of issues we see in health and healthcare today.

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