Skip to main content

Advancing Nurse-led Innovation: A Q&A With ANA's Bonnie Clipper

Analysis  |  By Jennifer Thew RN  
   February 08, 2019

Nurses are 'natural innovators', says the American Nurses Association's Bonnie Clipper, but nurses often don't see themselves that way. According to Clipper, there's no one better equipped for innovation than nurses.

This article appears in the March/April 2019 edition of HealthLeaders magazine.  

For many people, including those in healthcare, innovation is just another word for technology. But, says Bonnie Clipper, DNP, RN, MA, MBA, CENP, FACHE, vice president of innovation at the American Nurses Association, there is more to innovation than just smartphones and software.

"There isn't just one definition," she says. "Generally, [innovation is] doing things differently and creating value."

Clipper says she fell in love with the concept of innovation after her experience in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Executive Nurse Fellows program, a three-year advanced leadership program that was created to address the needs, opportunities, and challenges of nurses in senior leadership roles.

"[There I] began to learn about what innovation is, how it works, and how it benefits organizations," she says.

As a result of the RWJF program, she decided to pursue  The Executive Fellowship in Innovation Health Leadership program through the Arizona State University and American Organization of Nurse Executives.

"I learned even more about design thinking and innovation, and learned that there is a tremendous opportunity in healthcare to use more human-centered design to build the systems and processes that provide care for patients," she says.

And, if you ask Clipper, there's no one better equipped to do this than nurses.

"It is interesting to me that nurses don't really understand what innovation is and don't see themselves as innovators, yet they're absolutely natural innovators," she says.

While Clipper's passion for innovation was perhaps cultivated from participating in the fellowships and from her 30 years of nursing experience—20 of those have been in the nurse executive realm—she may have already been heading down the path to innovation when she decided to be a nurse at age six.

"When I was a child, the only experience I had with [healthcare] personnel was when I went for checkups [at the pediatrician's office]. I remember that my nurse there was smart and seemed to have a good grasp on everything going on," she says. "That always stuck with me. I was very impressed by all of the things she was able to do."

Today, Clipper is encouraging nurses at all levels and settings to embrace a can-do spirit and make a difference in healthcare through innovation.

In fact, the ANA has recently formed a collaborative partnership with HIMSS to drive nurse-led innovation through co-branded initiatives such as NursePitch, NurseJam, and other Innovation Lab events.

Following are the highlights of Clipper's recent conversation with HealthLeaders about nursing and innovation.

"The common response when I ask a room full of nurses—nurse leaders, outpatient nurses, inpatient nurses—'Is anyone here an innovator?' a couple of hands go up. Then I ask them, 'Have you ever had to do a work-around to provide care for a patient?' Well, then a lot more hands go up. Then I say, 'Have you ever macgyvered anything to take care of a patient?' By the end of that [question], every hand is up."

"The point is, [nurses] are all innovators. We just don't see ourselves that way. We don't use that word [innovation] because [we are just doing] what we do to take care of the patient. So that's a really powerful thing for me—helping nurses understand that innovation is not about rocket science and crazy-unique artificial intelligence or gizmos and gadgets and devices. It's really about doing things differently and bringing value."

"There's research that [suggests] nurses typically have one work-around per hour. Now, you might say that's not always good, and perhaps it isn't, but it just demonstrates all the roadblocks and the system failures that nurses have to work around to care for patients."

"Nurses impact change through innovation every day. Part of what [the ANA] wants to do is to help [nurses] understand how [they] can contribute to innovation. It doesn't all have to be the hard stuff. It can be through their own ways that they contribute to innovation."

"[The ANA conducts] nurse pitch events, which are kind of like a version of Shark Tank. We have hosted innovation labs, and we've been at hackathons where we are starting to bring nurses and say, 'We want you to experience this so you understand how you [can] contribute and get involved to transform care.' So we're really trying to bring nurses into this conversation. What's fascinating is there are four times as many nurses as physicians and there are eight times as many nurses as pharmacists, yet tech companies go to physicians and pharmacists. But it's nurses that know the workflows the best."

"Nurses are always going to find ways to take care of their patients because they're huge patient advocates. They're always going to find ways to [give patients the care they need to receive], and I think that demonstrates a lot of creativity and ingenuity and perseverance. To me, that exemplifies being a natural innovator."

"Would you consider healthcare fixed? Why not? That's one of my questions, "Why not?" Nurses are closest to the patients. They spend more time with patients and families than anyone else. There are more of them than there are of any other discipline. So why not engage them in transforming health? We believe that we're going to transform health through nurse-led innovation. [Nurses] are visible and they're present with the patient due to their scope and numbers. We absolutely should be involved in transforming health."

Jennifer Thew, RN, is the senior nursing editor at HealthLeaders.

Photo credit: Allison Shelley/Getty Images

Get the latest on healthcare leadership in your inbox.