The Case for Innovation Education in Nursing School

At a moment when so much in the health care world is ripe for disruption, there are more reasons than ever to include innovation and entrepreneurship as part of nursing curricula. Here, Jonathan Zhu Nu’23 lays out seven of the best.


A core principle of the nursing curriculum is developing strong critical thinking skills. When interacting with patients, nurses need to be prepared for a variety of situations, requiring the ability to think on their feet, consider multiple perspectives, and adjust accordingly. These critical thinking skills are reflected in the nursing process: conducting an assessment of the patient, diagnosing the main problems, creating a plan of care, implementing nursing interventions, and evaluating if the interventions were successful in achieving the planned outcomes. Interestingly, the stages of the nursing process correspond almost identically with the stages of the design thinking process, which are empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. As nursing students learn and experience the nursing process through their clinical experiences, they are also simultaneously acquiring skills that will help them to better follow the principles of human-centered design. Patient interaction and interviewing develops empathy, synthesizing patient data informs the diagnosis/definition, care plan development requires ideation, nursing interventions usually follow a prototypical model, and evaluations are conducted in close conjunction with testing.


Understanding current approaches to health and health care innovations is important for nursing students so they can implement similar approaches or build upon them in their own experiences. Initially, innovation often seems like a daunting prospect for nursing students due to its associations with complex technological solutions and application development. On top of that, there are an overwhelming number of health and health care issues to solve. However, by learning that health and health care issues are often tackled by interdisciplinary teams and typically start with a very specific focus, engaging in innovation becomes more realistic. Penn Nursing’s Amplify Nursing podcast is a great resource for students to learn more about how nurses can design solutions for clinical inefficiencies that they notice on their units. In addition to interviews with nursing leaders, many episodes highlight the journeys of nurses as their clinical experiences inspired them to pursue innovation projects.

For example, Ernesto Holguin, critical care nurse turned innovator, noticed that IV lines frequently got tangled or mixed up on the floor, which presented a trip hazard and higher risk of accidental dislodgement. He designed the iLine IV holder, a simple contraption that keeps IV lines together in place. It is good for nursing students to keep in mind that designs do not necessarily need to be complex in order to facilitate meaningful improvement.


Upon entering nursing school, most students are primarily concerned with learning and developing techniques to prepare them for clinical practice by the bedside. While this is undoubtedly the core of the profession, nursing is a broad profession and clinical expertise, clinical thinking, and patient-centered care are skills that can be implemented in a variety of settings. This is a point of emphasis in the American Nurses Foundation’s Reimagining Nursing Initiative, where one of the main goals states: “Practice-Ready Nurse Graduates pilots will support innovations in competency validation and clinical preceptorship that ensure newly-graduated nurses can immediately contribute to and succeed in a continuously transforming health delivery system.” As the American health delivery system evolves, nurses are presented with an opportunity to step into new areas to plug in gaps that are consequential to quality of care. These positions may include roles in health care innovation planning, health care management, health policy, clinical education, health research, consulting, and many more. Exposing nursing students to this wide array of possibilities early on in their preprofessional careers can help them make the most of their available resources, and to consider career paths beyond clinical practice.


Clinical rotations are arguably the most influential piece of nursing education in terms of
informing future professional practice. These clinicals have the potential to make strong impressions on nursing students, such as shaping preferences for working on different units. Oftentimes, clinical experiences also afford students the opportunity to see gaps in treatment and areas for improvement in health care. However, without a background knowledge of health care innovation, students can feel unequipped to address these gaps. This can be frustrating and translates into a significant lost opportunity, as they may become conditioned to think that there is nothing they can do as nurses to implement upstream change, which is far from true. By teaching students about how nurses are also qualified to work in innovation and entrepreneurship, stigma surrounding the role of nurses as purely bedside clinicians can be reduced.


As nurse-led innovation grows in recognition, more resources have been developed to train and guide health care professionals in the various processes involved in innovation and entrepreneurship, including innovation fellowship programs, accelerators, educational courses, and more.

At Penn Nursing, there are many great innovation opportunities available to students. The Design Thinking for Health website is a free platform that provides a design thinking course,
case studies with nursing leaders/ innovators, and a collection of articles, videos, and podcasts related to health care innovation. Additionally, the Penn Nursing Innovation Accelerator is a program that provides funding, access to innovation resources, and expert mentors to help students navigate the creation and testing of early-stage solutions. Penn Nursing also hosts innovation colloquiums, and an annual story slam where nurses and nursing students share their unique experiences.


In addition to innovation resources, many communities and events dedicated to promoting nurse-led health care innovations are also available for nursing students. SONSIEL (Society of Nurse Scientists, Innovators, Entrepreneurs, and Leaders) is an organization that empowers nurses to ideate and develop products, processes, services, and platforms to improve health care delivery and health outcomes. Members of SONSIEL can get involved
in a number of events, services, and programs where they can hear from nurse leaders and meet other nurses who are also passionate about nursing innovation. One of SONSIEL’s biggest events is the Nurse Hack 4 Health Hackathon, which brings together thousands of people from all over the world to collaborate on improving health and health care through creating minimally viable products. Nursing/health care hackathons are great events for getting a taste of the design thinking process and learning how to communicate and work with nurses, healthcare professionals, and developers from a variety of different backgrounds. These events also typically occur over the course of a single weekend, which allows for students to experience and absorb a vast amount of knowledge in a short period of time.


There is a huge need for nurses in leadership position to influence health care at a high level. As the clinicians who interact with and provide care for patients the most, nurses are at the heart of the US health care system, and our voices need to hold significant weight in discussions of health and health care policy. In many situations, nurses are best-placed to recognize what products/designs would be most beneficial not only for patients, but also for themselves. One of the greatest challenges currently threatening the American health care system is the shortage of practicing nurses, which can partially be attributed to mistreatment and excessive stress. These shortages lead to understaffing and increased responsibilities for the nurses who are left, which further exacerbates the rate of burnout and probability of poor patient care. Solving for these systemic issues will be a demanding process that requires more involvement and prioritization of nurses who understand the pain points involved. By equipping the next generation of nurses with the proper tools to grow into these leadership positions, substantial improvement in health outcomes can be achieved, and the field of nursing can be advanced to adapt to an ever-evolving health care system.

Back to Spring 2022 Issue

More From This Issue