The hidden ingenuity of nurses: Q&A with Anna Young

In her TEDMED 2015 talk, MakerHealth CEO and Co-Founder Anna Young describes how she is bringing rapid prototyping tools into hospital to enhance the natural, do-it-yourself problem solving abilities of MakerNurses, frontline clinicians, and patients who innovate to improve health care. Using a maker mindset of hands-on problem solving and experimentation, nurses, respiratory therapists, medical residents and patients in the MakerHealth network are reinventing medical technology. We caught up with Anna to learn more about her work, and what’s on the horizon for MakerNurse and MakerHealth. 

Q: Are there any recent MakerNurse innovations that you are especially excited about?

A: The most impressive projects we hear are the ones that launch from idea to prototype in less than a week! When we launched MakerNurse, nurses reached out sharing their ideas. Now, nurses are calling us to share their prototypes! Some of the recent nurse-made projects we’ve guided include: home care devices for improved patient hygiene, a custom patient support pillow, and a toy bear modified to support a PICU patient’s ventilator tubing.

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Driscoll Children’s Hospital, Corpus Christi, TX

Earlier this summer, Driscoll Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi, TX, one of the MakerNurse Expedition Sites, performed an incredible operation to separate two conjoined twins. From surgical planning to the patients’ rehabilitation, the process was full of health making that made us so proud to be working with Driscoll. The surgeons modified two toy dolls to match the anatomy of the twins and 3D printed a model of their organs from a DICOM file to help with surgical preparation. The nurses created custom, color-coded surgical caps to identify the clinicians for each of the twins: one team wearing purple and the other team yellow. During the rehabilitation, the Occupational Therapists and Child Life Specialists built an interactive mobile from PVC tubing, custom dimensioned around the bandage constraints of the twins.

For this care team, a maker mindset and access to prototyping tools helped them care for delicate, high-risk, N=1 patients. The innovations at Driscoll – the surgical models, custom caps and PVC rehab mobiles will never be commercialized because the market is too small. If you think about it though, the patient doesn’t care. So with a MakerHealth toolset and mindset, this team in Corpus Christi is reinventing care.

Q: You started your journey with nurses. How did MakerNurse grow to reach other health care professions and patients through MakerHealth?

A: Our academic roots at the Little Devices Lab at MIT had been looking at the science of medical making for a long time in hospitals in Nicaragua, Nigeria and Ethiopia. We got a huge shot in the arm when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supported the translation of our research framework for international health making into a framework for finding frontline MakerNurses across the American health care system. In the US, nurses are natural hands-on problem solvers and leaders in making, but they don’t operate alone in their tinkering. As we roll out the MakerHealth Program in hospitals, we are working with doctors making surgical tools, OTs and PTs creating adaptive devices and even police teams joining the community by 3D printing lock jigs. We’ve created on-ramps and just-in-time learning blocks to help all staff inside of the hospital learn the skills needed to prototype.

This same model of medical prototyping and sharing grew beyond the hospital walls. We saw with a parent in Ohio, who refused to wait for Medicaid to kick in to reimburse a walker for his daughter who has an endocrine disorder. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves, went into his garage and transformed his grandmother’s adult walker into a child-size one for his daughter. Bonus, he spray painted it purple. Her favorite color. This is the heart of health making, people who are driven to create solutions for the patients closest to them.

Q: What are today’s grand visionary plans of MakerHealth?

A: Health making is revolutionizing the way care is delivered in hospitals, clinics, and home care divisions across the globe. Patient-made machines are changing the provider-patient dynamic. The solutions by frontline staff are making care better and more affordable. Everyone is working to get rid of the black box of medicine: hidden engineering, hostage data and runaway prices. When the status-quo medical device becomes too cost-prohibitive, we see emergency response teams in Seattle respond by rolling out their own DIY kits. We are driven to show health systems how to move these health prototypes into clinical care. Right now, medicine is a temple of evidence raised practice. We’re bringing back an experimental mindset where everyone gets to ask the questions-and everyone gets to build the answers. You need tools: so we are going to continue to grow our hospital makerspaces, we’re writing new types of medical and nursing school curriculum, and folks can now order prototyping kits shipped to their home. We are reinventing health care one maker at a time.


annayoung_blogcaption MakerNurse co-founder Anna Young describes how she is bringing rapid prototyping tools into hospital units to enhance the natural, do-it-yourself problem solving abilities of nurses who innovate to improve patient care on a daily basis.