MakerNurse Is Tapping Grassroots Innovation To Improve Patient Care

Cofounder Anna Young is empowering health care professionals to flex their maker-movement muscles–with wonderful results.

MakerNurse Is Tapping Grassroots Innovation To Improve Patient Care
[Illustration: Daniel Zender]

Anna Young helps nurses get creative when treating their patients. In the last year, she’s set up two “maker-spaces” inside hospitals and she’s continued to document nurse-made fixes and workarounds that make patients’ lives a little more bearable. Examples include glow-in-the-dark pill bottles, bed-shower overlays, and a TV remote control for patients with tremors in their fingers.


Since Young cofounded MakerNurse in 2013, she’s collected more than 50 device ideas from around the country, publishing how-to guides for each online so that others can iterate on the concepts. The first maker-space is up and running at the John Sealy Hospital in Galveston, Texas and another is opening soon at South Shore Hospital, in Weymouth, Massachusetts. Each has an array of pliers, sewing needles, 3-D printers, laser cutters, and medical prototyping equipment like “vital signs” construction sets and biocompatible adhesives. In all, about 1,000 nurses have worked with MakerNurse so far. And, through a related organization, Maker Health, Young now wants to involve other frontline workers, and even patients themselves.

Fast Company: You trained as an economist. How did you get into medical tinkering?
Anna Young: My first job was launching a solar-powered autoclave [called Solarclave]. My role was to build local supply chains for developing countries. I watched the engineers struggle when it wasn’t working, and, when I made suggestions, the feedback was, ‘Well, you’re not an engineer.” I thought: “Well, I’m not an engineer, but I know we need to test this inside a clinic rather than a workshop.”

When I moved to Boston and [took another role], it forced me to learn about prototyping. I had to think “how do you operate saws and presses to create this lattice structure in Nicaragua?” It’s the same with Maker Nurse. We’re learning how to create health technology not because of [our] formal engineering training, but because we want to solve real problems in a simple way.

Why empower nurses to make things in hospitals?
Nurses have an innate understanding of both the clinical problems patients face and what’s hindering that person right now. And they know the supply closet inside and out. They’re natural makers and hands-on problem solvers. Whether they’re solving a clinical challenge or doing something to make patients more comfortable, they’re very quick to do that because of the volume of patients they’re seeing. They’re making something that solves the problem of the patient in a just-in-time way.

What are some of your favorite examples of nurse-made innovations?
In Galveston, a nurse named Jason Schaeffer created a PVC structure to overlay a bed bath inside of the burn unit. It means a critical care nurse doesn’t have to spend seven or eight hours standing over the bed tending to a burn victim. We worked with him to learn how to use 3-D CAD software and he was able to model these connector points that bring together medical grade shower heads into the structure. Now we’re helping him design a pilot study, so he can try it in the hospital through an institutional review board study.

At Driscoll Children’s Hospital, in Corpus Christi, Texas, Roxana Reyna developed a new way to treat abdominal wall defects in infants. It’s a new hardware protocol that takes four different types of bandages and applies them in a very specific way. The hospital saves $250,000 a year now because babies are able to go home more quickly and the timeline of procedures has changed. It’s not a new invention, but there was tremendous value captured by the health care system because of her ingenuity.


What are the risks involved in making medical equipment in this way?
We work with the institutional review boards within hospitals so that anything from the maker space goes into a study that’s evaluated by an ethics committee. They say whether it’s “a safe alternative” or whether it’s not actually “modifying the standard of care.”

Now you’re expanding beyond nurses?
Nurses are leading what it means to be making in health care. But they operate in a really big ecosystem, and even as we’ve been growing MakerNurse, nurses have been pointing to everyone else who’s creating. Patients are a source of ingenuity as well. We want to open up the tools and resources of maker spaces to occupational therapists, radiologists, and home caregivers, so they all have a place to contribute and learn about the tools for making in health.


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.