Nurses Designing for Health

Marion Leary
5 min readNov 21, 2019


An online platform to help nurses learn the design thinking framework.

Last year, I traveled around the country to meet, document, and be in awe of nurses who are designing innovative solutions to some of the countries biggest health and health care issues. I did this as a part of a grant, awarded to the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing by the Rita and Alex Hillman Foundation. The goal was to create the Design Thinking for Health platform, a free, open access curriculum that teaches nurses a new way to design solutions to the health and healthcare problems they see in their practice.

The human-centered approach of Design Thinking laid its roots down in the 1930s but was popularized in the 1980s and 1990s by people who now teach and work at places like Stanford University’s and IDEO. Since then, the application of Design Thinking has spread out well past design, and in recent years, into health and healthcare. Design Thinking includes 5 steps, the first of which is empathy, which we can arguably say is also the foundation of the profession of nursing, making it a synergistic fit. Empathy, from the design thinking framework entails examining a problem, and coming up with a solution to that problem, from the point of view of the people experiencing the problem — a novel concept, no?

In true human-centered approach, to fully understand how nurses are creating innovative solutions to the problems they see everyday, I needed to immerse myself in the environments where these nurses live, work, and play — sharing in their worlds, understanding why they do the work they do, who influences and affects the way they see the world, and interacting with some of the people and patients’ for whom they are designing. In my relatively short professional career in the nursing innovation space, it was a personal highlight!

Nurse Innovators featured on the Design Thinking for Health platform.

I started off my travels in El Paso, Tx to meet with Ernesto Holguin BSN, RN. Ernesto comes from a family of military persons (his brother was a navy seal) and healthcare providers (one of his sisters is also a nurse and another is a radiology technician). Ernesto was a consummate “tinkerer” from a young age and as such took that sense of wonder and has used it for good in his nursing career. Ernesto is a diabetic nurse who noticed the problems that his patients were continually experiencing due to loss of feeling in their feet. He thus created a foot sensor and dryer to decrease infection in those patients. Family is an important part of Ernesto’s life and therefore it is no surprise that he enlisted his brother as his business partner.

Ernesto and his family invited me and our film crew into their home on a beautiful, sunny morning in El Paso, where they not only allowed us to film them, but allowed us to join in on their son’s birthday party, and ended our visit, surrounded by his extended family, engrossed in an afternoon of captivating storytelling by many of his siblings. The genuine warmth and hospitality we were shown has stayed with me all of these months later.

My next stop was to beautiful Amherst, MA where I got to spend two days in awe of the incredibly diverse, innovative, and thoughtful work of Rachel Walker PhD, RN and her colleagues. I was struck most by their intense desire to include every type of human in the work they do in a way that most don’t even consider. From thinking about the needs of an interdisciplinary team all the way through to making sure patients’ voices are heard, they intentionally combine their research with a human-centered approach that considers the accessibility & equity issues of their students, patients, & collaborators.

Back at home in Philly, I was able to learn more about the work my colleague at Penn Nursing, Kathy Bowles PhD, RN, has successfully commercialized. After years of clinical practice, seeing patients being discharged from the hospital without all of their needs being met, she created a decision support tool for discharge planning. Dr. Bowles truly understands, more than any other nurse I have spoken with, how our nursing practice, along with innate curiosity, and the innovation process go hand-in-hand to create meaningful products that improve patients’ lives.

The final stop on our trip to document nurse innovators was epitomized by the much needed work of Sarah Szanton PhD, ANP at Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Szanton not only allowed us into her work, but into her life, filming her during her stress relieving exercise routine of swimming. I certainly don’t think I would be that gracious!

Dr. Szanton’s work created the very successful program Community Aging in Place — Advancing Better Living for Elders (CAPABLE) that partners with Occupational Therapy and a “handyman” to assist older adults to be able to live safely and feel confident in their homes. We were able to visit two of CAPABLE’s patients, both of whom repeated over and over how meaningful it was to be able to not only stay in their homes, but feel safe in their homes. As I heard a couple of times, the CAPABLE program does so much to make their clients lives better than any medication.

The common thread through all of these experiences has been the humbleness of the nurse innovators themselves, as well as the graciousness with which they have allowed us to accurately and thoroughly tell their stories. Stories that need to be told. Nurses are at the intersection of health and healthcare in a way that makes us the prime conduits for innovation, innovation that starts with, and ends with, empathy and the need for a holistic, equitable and human-centered, patient driven, approach. I hope you will watch their stories, be inspired, and share this platform with others.

If you are a nurse interested in learning more about nursing innovation and design thinking, want to be inspired by our nurse innovators, or want to join our nursing innovation community, please check out our newly launch Design Thinking For Health platform. Be sure to share your story with us as well! Together we can #amplifynursing as leaders in health and healthcare innovation:



Marion Leary

Science geek. Passionate abt Philly, resuscitation, social media, scicomm, innovation, art, & helping others.