Why Healthcare Needs Nurse Innovators like Dr. Rachel Walker

Healthcare is a part of everyone’s lives from the very moment that we are born. The goal of any healthcare system should be to deliver care to individuals from every walk of life and ensure that their needs are met.

Nurse innovators like Dr. Rachel Walker, Ph.D., RN, are not only providing care to their patients, but also innovating on behalf of them, to make sure their complex needs are being addressed. Dr. Walker is a nurse, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the first nurse to be named an AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador, in the class of 2018–2019.

At a recent AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors event, ‘Engineering Academic Environments to Foster Invention and Innovation’, Dr. Walker discussed her goals, inspirations, and work — that revolves around making healthcare solutions accessible to everyone, and putting the needs of patients front and center.

Dr. Rachel Walker (far right), with other 2018–2019 AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors Florence Lu (left) and Mary Kombolias (center)

While taking part in a panel discussion regarding technology in the healthcare and nursing, Dr. Walker said she never initially considered herself as an inventor.

“I got into this program, the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors, in part, because I got angry… (I had been) relentlessly using technologies and digital interfaces for electronic health records, and all manner of other things under the sun, that had clearly been designed without us, and without necessarily the input of our patients,” Dr. Walker said.

Logically, it can be extremely difficult to invent something that is designed to alleviate someone of an issue that they encounter, without having ever experienced it yourself. Often times, inventors in the field of consumer goods, tech, etc — bring in end-users to get better information into how it affects target demographics, thus giving more insight into how the problem can be solved. Healthcare should be no different — although often, it is.

Dr. Rachel Walker giving a TEDx talk in Easthampton

Dr. Walker says that, within her nursing team at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, they have a principle that guides their inventing work.

“We have a philosophy: nothing about us, without us. People who’ve experienced health challenges or who have an issue, that’s who we’re designing for. They are our co-designers and our members of our team. We think that, first and foremost, it’s important that they help us to find the problem in the first place. Not just how we should be solving for it.”

When asked by the event moderator, what her goals were, Dr. Walker responded that her aim was for ‘bi-directional communication’.

“I did my PhD in nursing, but I did my post doc in a Translational Science Institute. Not just bringing things from bench to bedside, but also helping those at the bench better understand the reality that a lot of the people we are serving are facing, and what the clinicians who are there at the bedside or in the home delivering care, are also having to do,” she said.

“I want communities and patients who are people-first, to have a certain level of, not just health literacy, but an understanding of what technology is doing. What’s possible. What they can even imagine, in terms of problems that could be solved.”

After listening to Dr. Walker speak, and then taking a moment to absorb her message, it became abundantly clear that Dr. Rachel Walker is not only a nurse because she studied nursing — but also because, now that she has crossed over into the world of technology that is rarely occupied by nurses — she knows there are endless more ways to continue helping patients get their voices heard and needs met.

Finally, Dr. Walker also gave her take on the cost of healthcare — citing research that showed the the only real predictor of a drug cost in the US market, was what the market will bear.

“I’ve spent some time studying the financial toxicity of cancer care. Even among so-called ‘adequately-insured’ individuals, when you compound the out of pocket and/or labor hours lost, caregiving hours, 16 billion hours of informal caregiving that are delivered around the globe each year… that is basically what allows any system to go on. Yet, we don’t support that aspect of care.”

While it is fair to say that those who fund and research medicine do deserve compensation for their work, Dr. Walker believes all patients deserve equitable access to treatment.

Personally — my belief is that too many people and corporations are invested in healthcare for the sake of money — and that the world needs more innovators like Dr. Rachel Walker to be genuinely invested in helping others.

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