Inspiring Equitable Innovation in Healthcare

The AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors Program participated in the inaugural webinar of the UnitedHealth Group’s Academy of Technology (AoT). AoT includes top technologists across the enterprise and aims to provide an opportunity for its elite, global technical community to contribute to the company’s innovation agenda, support the investigation and implementation of breakthrough technologies and concepts and stimulate and advance technical dialogue and innovation.

The conversation on healthcare and technology was moderated by Rick Hamilton, Optum’s Senior Distinguished Engineer and AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador. Three AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors shared their experiences with developing inventions with the goal of improving healthcare.

The presentations from the Ambassadors and the questions from the audience centered on the importance of diversity in invention and the need to treat the groups who will use an invention as partners in its development.

Jason Kang is the CEO and co-founder of Kinnos Inc., a New York-based, majority women and majority minority company that aims to raise the standard of infectious disease decontamination to protect healthcare workers, patients, and the general public. His invention story demonstrates that innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Highlight®, Kinnos’ colored disinfectant additive, was developed after hearing first hand from healthcare workers about how ineffective decontamination leads to high transmission of infection. Jason and his fellow Kinnos co-founders received a government grant to travel to West Africa during the Ebola outbreak of 2014. There, they introduced Highlight® as they worked alongside healthcare providers. Then, Kinnos translated the product from an emergency response tool to a day-to-day product in US hospitals. The most challenging part of this transition was gaining trust from hospital workers and executives alike. Through data collection and analysis, Kinnos identified several performance points of Highlight® and has successfully created a new market for their solution. Jason stressed that Kinnos’s success is directly tied to the diversity of its employees and in hearing from the individuals whose problems they are working to address.

Rachel Walker, PhD, RN, is an Assistant Professor and Nurse Inventor at the UMass Amherst College of Nursing. On healthcare and technology, Dr. Walker emphasized that there is a lot of tech that nurses are required to engage with that actually prevents them from providing the best care possible. Nurses account for half of the global healthcare workforce and are often well-versed in the needs of patients, their caregivers, and communities at large, as well as the technologists providing patients and communities care. Because of this unique position and ability to translate between these different populations, nurses are full of ideas about improvements to the hospital environment and the healthcare system in general. Dr. Walker outlined the three concepts that guide the work of nurse inventors: dignity, capability, and justice. Nurse inventors seek to focus on the identity of the person they’re working with in terms of both who they are and what their health status means for them overall. Nurses take a patient’s capability into account when thinking about environments that will allow patients to excel. Lastly, Dr. Walker spoke about how important it is to consider justice when inventing—we should consider what the systemic barriers are that prevent people access to excellent care and do all that we can to remove those barriers. Doing so means hearing the stories of patients, seeing them as people, and putting them at the center of the invention process.

Karen Burg, PhD believes that innovation lies at the intersection of disciplines. At University of Georgia, she is dedicated to building clinician inspired innovation teams that allow for clinician ideas to be turned into real world solutions and products. She described how the concept of innovation teams is not restricted to healthcare and can be applied to any sector. In her efforts to help others develop innovation teams, she stresses that diversity and equity as integral to success. Having different perspectives on the team enables a 360 view of the problem at hand, and enables the people involved to collaboratively assess priorities—what’s important for a researcher may not be important for a clinician. The key to the success of innovation teams is to make conscious efforts to include all voices and work as a team, whether its understanding scheduling differences or determining end goals of a project.

The AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors strive to inspire a new and diverse generation of inventors dedicated to solving difficult global challenges and inform on the components needed to create inventions that sustainably solve global problems. We were thrilled to speak with the UHG AoT community about the importance of diversity and patient centered design. We look forward to continuing to spread these messages to other companies, institutions, and policymakers.

Blog by: Erin Conn, Ph.D., Program Associate at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for the AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors Program.