Bringing Nurse Making to the Forefront of Health Care

    • February 14, 2014

In 1952, nurse Paulette Drummonds created a recipe for material and dye combinations to create personalized, colorful wound care treatment and casting devices for pediatric patients.

Forty years later, with skill borrowed from her cross-stitch and sewing hobbies, Gloriann Wolf, RN, made a tracheostomy collar using soft-padded cotton velour to shield the skin from the twill-tape ties that hold the breathing tube in place, yet rub skin raw.

Today, resourceful nurses in Richmond, Virginia use ECG electrodes to modify patient call buttons, making them tactile for low-vision patients.

Across the country, nurses with a DIY (Do It Yourself) mindset are using their creativity to customize or make new devices that improve patient care. Turning to the supply closet, taking apart wound care kits, and even using Legos, these nurses are applying their “maker” mentality to solve problems encountered on the ward.

Yet the creative, inventive nurses behind these solutions often go unrecognized for their ingenuity.

MakerNurse, a new initiative from the Little Devices Lab at MIT, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, aims to change that. By examining nurse innovation in U.S. hospitals, MakerNurse hopes to uncover the behaviors, circumstances, and cultural drivers that enhance resourcefulness and creativity among hospital nurses, and identify tools and prototyping strategies that could help more nurses bring their ideas for improving health care to fruition.

The Maker Movement

Look around and you’ll see a vibrant community of crafters, tinkerers and hackers—people who are modifying, adapting, or building everyday items from car engines to household mops using new technologies such as 3D printers and electronics, as well as more traditional skills such as woodworking, and arts and crafts. Today, makers from all walks of life gather at Maker Faires across the country to share tips, display their creations, and learn about the latest techniques that allow them to create useful things. 

Look through this lens and it is evident that health care is full of examples of “making”— tourniquets, gel-alcohol for hand washing, tennis ball walkers, and hot and cold packs. These solutions are repeatable. They are affordable. They can be shared and spread to other units. Most importantly, they help patients. And most often, they’re created by nurses.

“We know from our research that some of the best DIY technologies being used in hospitals and clinics around the world are the inventions of nurses,” says MakerNurse co-founder Jose Gomez-Marquez. “They are translating their instinct to care into a skillset to solve everyday problems and make their patients healthy.”

While we often hear about the nurses who spin off their ideas into proprietary, patented inventions or companies, many more nurses are everyday makers. These nurses create one-off solutions at the bedside which inject an enormous value in the health care system.

For the last 100 years, nurses have led a quiet revolution in medical making. MakerNurse aims to give that revolution a voice, by building a community in which nurses can share their ideas and be recognized for their skills.

“Nurses across America are creating medical devices you and I could hold in our hands that have the potential to treat and to heal. They are the leading practitioners of DIY Medical Technologies,” explains Gomez-Marquez. “Yet these stealth innovators do not receive the recognition, support, tools, or training that they need to maximize their ability to transform the way health care is delivered.”

Uncovering Innovation

By reaching out to hospitals, health care systems and nursing schools around the country, MakerNurse hopes to identify hotspots of creative and innovative maker nurses. Together with these nurses, MakerNurse will identify tools and protocols to support nurse making, and create a culture in which nurses who find ways to solve problems on their own are celebrated.

To begin, MakerNurse is surveying nurses across the United States to really understand why and how nurses make things to help patients—from what kinds of tools and materials they use, to the barriers that mean their ideas remain a sketch on the back of a napkin, waiting for the right support to bring them into realization.

MakerNurse is also visiting hospitals and clinics to see first-hand the innovative solutions nurses are developing. It is collaborating with Maimonides Medical Center of Brooklyn, New York and Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital of Richmond, Virginia to identify trends in nursing innovation in their systems. MakerNurse also plans to conduct site visits at other locations across the country. During site visits, nurses are encouraged to brainstorm ideas for new medical devices with the MakerNurse team, and use the MakerNurse Technology Crash Cart filled with novel and affordable materials to begin to prototype their medical devices.

“Because nurses are on the front lines of health care delivery and closer to the patient than conventional engineering labs in America, they are uniquely positioned to design breakthrough solutions to improve care,” Gomez-Marquez says. “We must nurture the creative potential of the American nurse.”