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Innovation Through Nurse Leadership

The healthcare system is always under pressure to streamline care, improve outcomes and keep costs low — essentially, to continuously innovate. But “as the most high-touch, patient-centered role, nursing has been notably left behind when it comes to innovation,” says a May 2021 issue of Nursing Management. Despite having “the best vantage point from every aspect of healthcare,” says the article, nurse leaders are relegated to crafting “workarounds to prevent patient harm” instead of creating a culture that supports ongoing innovation.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has reiterated nurses’ resourcefulness and the role that nurse leadership has in bringing those ideas to light. This is one reason why nurse executive leadership programs focus heavily on the development of nonclinical skills such as communication, organizational psychology and quality improvement strategies.

Are There Different Types of Healthcare Innovation?

According to Nursing Administration Quarterly, innovation in healthcare has historically been described as “something new, or perceived new, by the population experiencing the innovation, that has the potential to drive change and redefine healthcare’s economic and/or social potential.” This type of innovation is frequently brought to market by larger companies who have made substantial investments in technology or research.

Innovation on the individual level occurs, too, and is often on a spectrum between subtle and disruptive. Subtle innovation is virtually risk-free and refers to the small, but highly impactful, changes that can lead to a better way of doing things. On the other hand, disruptive innovation is generally more resource- and time-intensive and carries more risk, usually because no one has attempted the idea before or the target market is small.

Subtle innovation has been particularly prominent throughout the pandemic, especially early on when nurses were grappling with supply and labor shortages. When Jessica Latham, RN and critical care nurse educator, experienced her first COVID-related code blue incident, she immediately noted the communication difficulties.  

“I realized we needed a way to help keep the code team informed and those outside the room unexposed,” she says in an interview with Johnson & Johnson Nursing. So, within an hour of gathering insights from her ICU colleagues, Latham created Code Cards, which list common medications and procedures used during a code blue. Staff outside the room can hold the cards against the room’s glass to maintain communication with the code team.  

What Are the 5 Characteristics of Innovative Nurse Leadership?

The attitudes of nurse leaders make all the difference. To effectively drive change, the American Nurses Association (ANA) suggests that nurse leaders develop these five characteristics:

  1. Encourage divergent ways of thinking
  2. Support risk-taking behaviors
  3. Be willing to fail
  4. Aim for flexibility and agility so that adaptations can be made quickly
  5. Promote employees’ autonomy and freedom

How Can Nurse Leaders Promote Innovative Thinking?

Cultivating a culture of innovation is challenging but possible. Consider these actionable strategies:

Start with 15% solutions. Lack of autonomy tends to stifle creativity and promote negative thinking. When nurse leaders use 15% solutions, employees are given the freedom to take the first step or action toward solving a problem without seeking approval. This maintains their sense of independence and encourages them to practice at the top of their scope and authority.

Invest in innovative leadership. Innovation relies on thought leadership and a supportive workplace.  While some employees offer leadership development initiatives or mentoring programs, many nurses interested in leadership pursue graduate education, like a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) in Nurse Executive Leadership.

Ask targeted questions. Start conversations and generate ideas by asking pointed questions and being open to the responses. For example, “Can you describe your ideal patient discharge procedure?” and “What is one way we can instantly improve staff scheduling?” are some great options to jumpstart brainstorming.   

Healthcare must continue to innovate and evolve so that it can adjust to emerging demands. Nurse leaders are central to creating a culture in which out-of-the-box thinking is the norm and from which new ideas and best practices can grow. 

Learn more about Northern Kentucky University’s MSN – Nurse Executive Leadership online program.


Johnson & Johnson Nursing: Meet 10 Nurses Pioneering Innovative COVID-19 Solutions

Nursing Administration Quarterly: Disruption Ahead, Navigating and Leading the Future of Nursing

Nursing Management: Disruptive Innovation for the Unstoppable Nurse Leader

Nursing World, American Nurses Association: The Innovation Road Map – A Guide for Nurse Leaders

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