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Nurses Know Best: Empowering Medical Professionals To Reinvent Medicine

Forget scales that send your weight to Twitter. It turns out, if you ask people who work in a hospital day-in and day-out to become designers, you get some actually useful ideas to improve health care.

Nurses Know Best: Empowering Medical Professionals To Reinvent Medicine
[Image: Nurse via ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock]

What do glow-in-the-dark pill bottles, plastic catheter protectors, and color-coded IV lines have in common? They’re all medical devices invented by nurses who saw a problem first-hand and tried to solve it.

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Jose Gomez-Marquez thinks the nation’s 3.1 million nurses could actually fix a lot of problems in health care and save the system money while doing it. Together with his partner Anna Young, he has set up MakerNurse, a site where nurses can submit ideas, team up with collaborators, and document their solutions in how-to guides.

“We think we can finally democratize medical device design,” says Gomez-Marquez, who works at the Little Devices lab at MIT. “It shouldn’t just be in the hands of designers and people who are good at making focus groups. We believe it should be available to everybody.”

The history of medicine is full of devices that started in garages (like the pacemaker). And nurses used to have more of a role as innovators than they do now. The American Journal of Nursing once published a tips page, where nurses could swap ideas as if they were cooking recipes, for example.

“Something happened along the way where we professionalized biomedical engineering,” Gomez-Marquez says. “Companies co-opted it and used the notion of safety as a barrier to entry, which I don’t think is right. You end up with $300 pill bottles, or $200 scales that send your weight to Twitter.”

An early version of the site has already received about 80 ideas from nurses around the country, and the researchers have visited several hospitals that already allow nurses to innovate. The full MakerNurse Create platform, which is based on sites like Make and Instructables, will go live this summer. It’s funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which supports health innovation through its Pioneer program.

The ideas that have been submitted so far tend to be fixes to problems with existing equipment. For example, nurses in Brooklyn took a sock, some respirator connectors, and some tape and created a breathing-device holder for newborn babies. It’s meant to stop the apparatus from slipping off when babies move around a cot. The color-coded IVs are designed to help nurses remember which lines are which, to stop mix-ups.

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Perhaps the most famous maker-nurse is Roxana Reyna, from Driscoll Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas. She developed a unique dressing for kids born with omphalocele, a type of birth defect, and was recently honored at White House’s Maker Faire in Washington, D.C. She also came up with a wrapping for stethoscopes, which makes them harder-wearing.

Gomez-Marquez hopes these early ideas will the first of many and that hundreds of nurses will be encouraged to come forward. Eventually, he’d like every hospital to have a workshop where nurses can play around with ideas. “We’re not advocating making things and trying them directly on patients. We’re saying that nurses should just have a starting chance,” he says.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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