As the first nurse to be selected by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and The Lemelson Foundation as an AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador, Rachel Walker, PhD, RN, is intimately familiar with nurse-driven innovation and the significant impact it has on healthcare. Dr. Walker is a nurse inventor, former rural emergency medical and disaster relief worker, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst College of Nursing, and advocate for nurses as leaders in healthcare innovation and improvement. We recently spoke with Dr. Walker to learn more about her nursing journey, her innovative ideas, and her thoughts on nurses as leaders, mentors, and inventors.
Notes for the Nursing Community (NFTNC): Can you tell us about your nursing journey, and how your experience in rural areas and with disaster relief led you to where you are now?
Dr. Walker: When I was 19, I was working with a wilderness search and rescue team based in the Blue Ridge Mountains. One night we were called out to search for a plane that had crashed into a side of a mountain. After 8 hours of searching in the dark, we located the crumpled plane and its pilot. I realized two things: 1) The pilot, who was conscious but very badly injured, was most likely going to die, and 2) even as we were trying to save his life, no one was talking to him as a person. So, I sat at his side and let him know that we’d been searching for him all night, that there were people who loved and cared about him, and that he wasn’t alone. Although he died on the helicopter to the hospital, that experience had a profound impact on my appreciation for the importance of presence and acknowledging the personhood of every patient.
There were many other experiences, from my assignment as a U.S. Peace Corps HIV/AIDS volunteer in West Africa, to time spent as an EMT responding to homebound older adults in rural Virginia, that led me to nursing. Working as a registered nurse and as a nurse scientist has given me the privilege of supporting those sacred transitions between life and death; and to witness movement into and out of every state of health and well-being. Insights from my practice have also played a huge role inspiring ideas for inventions.
NFTNC: Can you share some background on your innovative studies?
Dr. Walker: One of the projects I work on is a collaboration between nurses, students, and engineers who are working to build a portable, self-contained system that purifies water and generates essential IV fluids. This was inspired by the hurricanes that struck Puerto Rico in 2017, when many of the IV fluid-manufacturing plants were disabled by the hurricane. The storms resulted in critical shortages of IV fluids such as normal saline across the United States.
At UMass, all of our projects begin with the patients and what they tell us health looks like for them. Our teams also include nursing students and students from a variety of other disciplines, such as kinesiology, computer engineering, and public health. Our portfolio is eclectic, but at the heart of every project is attention to the promotion of human dignity, a person’s ability to engage in the activities that are most meaningful to them, and achievement of health equity. These include:
- An ‘off-the-shelf’ set of tools to support wellness after cancer treatment, including sexual well-being, sponsored by the Susan G. Komen Foundation for Breast Cancer Research.
- A collaboration with chemistry professor Dr. Trisha Andrew, PhD, in which we’re developing textiles that could help palliate and relieve symptoms of nerve damage due to certain cancer therapies.
- Testing devices we’re developing with chemical engineering professor Dr. Sarah Perry, PhD, to detect toxic byproducts of drugs like chemotherapy in body fluids .
- A National Institutes of Health (NIH)-sponsored study using eye-tracking technology from computer scientists and psychologists to measure how fatigue impacts eye function and to help patients ‘show’ this often invisible symptom to others through these measurements.
- Technology to support patients and families to assess and modify their home interiors for greater accessibility and safety, supported by seed funds from the Center for Personalized Health Monitoring where I am an Associate Director.
NFTNC: Why is it so important for nurses to lead innovation in healthcare?
Dr. Walker: Our value as inventors lies not only in the fact that we are on the frontlines in every place healthcare is delivered in the world, or even that we have been voted the most trusted profession in the United States for almost 20 years. It is not only that we spend more time getting to know and caring for our patients than almost any other health professional, or how at the end of the day, we’re the ones handling the thousands of medical devices, IV lines, drugs, electronic health record systems, and other tools that have become synonymous with modern healthcare. The value of nurse inventors lies in the problems we solve, and the methods and ethics we apply to the process of innovation.
For nurse inventors, a problem is not solved if the solution prevents a person from doing what is most meaningful and important to them, or inflicts more physical, psychological, spiritual, cultural, or economic harm than benefit. For us, the process of innovation and invention is approached differently. We take the following steps to bring innovation to life and solve problems:
- Listen to the community, our patients, and their families, and observe the needs and opportunities for innovation.
- Be mindful of the power dynamics and strive for inclusion and engagement – patients are not only the people we design for, but they are the people we design with.
- Recruit other disciplines who can contribute useful expertise, from philosophers and artists to social workers and engineers.
- Generate ideas and think before we act – consider the ethics of a situation and not just if we can do something, but if we should.
- Implement a person-directed design process that empowers people to identify their goals and how we can best support them.
NFTNC: What advice would you give to aspiring nurse innovators who haven’t brought their ideas to life yet?
Dr. Walker: This week while I was visiting the AAAS in Washington, D.C., I heard a speaker define ‘inventor’ as the person who recognizes a problem, and has “the spark of an idea that leads to a new solution.” If you’re a nurse or a nursing student with that spark of a great idea, or even the start of a good question, you are following in a very long and proud tradition of nurse scientists and inventors. There are resources that can help make your idea a reality. Find mentors, and check out opportunities like the American Nurses Association (ANA) Innovation Awards, incubator spaces like VentureWell, and competitions like MakerNurse, NurseSharktank at Northeastern University, or our InventRN team at UMass Amherst. You belong here – the world needs more questions, more ideas, and more inventions from those of us who’ve been on the frontlines of healthcare.
To learn more about Dr. Walker’s innovative work and research at UMASS Amherst, click here. Additionally, if you have a story of nurse-led innovation, visit www.nursesinnovate.com to let Johnson & Johnson know how nurses are changing the world and helping to make a difference in the lives of patients.