In April 2015, the VA Center for Innovation co-hosted its second Forge Health Innovation Challenge to create healthcare solutions for our nation’s Veterans. A healthcare “hack-a-thon,” participants have 36 hours to pitch and build solutions to real problems facing the healthcare community. VA nurse Pamela Collier participated in the series of events and shared her reflections with Vantage Point.

I’d never heard the term ‘hack-a-thon’ before.  The name alone drew me in, so I attended the event with the hopes that I would find an outlet for my innovative ideas, some of which had been rolling around in my head for at least 10 years.

In fact, a specific problem has disturbed me for my entire operating room career  — that archaic instrumentation still being used in the area of visualization for vaginal hysterectomies.  With major strides in every other aspect of medicine, why is it that one of the most advantageous procedures for aging women uses instrumentation developed 100 years ago?

There has to be an innovative improvement to the old standard duck-billed speculum that is so commonly used. There has to be a way to improve the surgeon’s ability to see the female anatomy without extreme physical exertion of the operating room staff and without harm to the patient’s tissue. As a surgical nurse, I have watched surgeons struggling for exposure during vaginal approach hysterectomies and experienced the pain of holding retractors for myself. So when it came time to propose my idea, I couldn’t contain myself. I stood up and explained this complex problem and my idea for a solution.

Even though I had come up with my idea for how to fix this problem many years ago, I didn’t know how to get my idea to production.  I knew from the feedback, that I had come to the right place at the first-ever Health Innovation Challenge at the Atlanta VA medical center.

The Health Challenge event was modeled after similar initiatives called hack-a-thons. This event was open to all interested participants internal and external to the VA, where Veterans, caregivers, engineers, entrepreneurs, clinicians, designers or scientists came together to solve problems in a 36-hour time frame. These events allow participants to tackle and solve problems impacting our ability to deliver the best possible services to Veterans and their supporters. VA is uniquely situated as the largest integrated healthcare system in the country to drive events such as these because we can test, implement and scale healthcare innovations in a more rapid manner, thus to influence private sector healthcare more broadly as well.

After explaining this surgical issue to the crowd, a number of people who wanted to fix it came up to me.  People with design and engineering know-how from Georgia Tech wanted to know more and we formed an alliance. They asked questions and I answered from my vantage point as a nurse. They examined the concept I had developed years before, asked questions and sought answers into the night and the next day.  Just when I thought they had no more questions and no more ideas, the light bulbs went off and an innovation was born.

Before I knew it, each person had taken on some aspect of the solution and presentation.  It seemed to be coming together.  The three engineers of the group drew sketches and molded various materials. One team member began preparing our PowerPoint before we even finalized our re-tractor concept.  Since our project was a physical design, we were excited to be able to bring our idea to reality with a 3D printer.

Team demoing the prototypeWe wanted our re-tractor to expand into a position of strength for the walls of the vaginal canal and to stay in place until the device was deactivated by the surgeon. This concept would achieve both the need for retraction and for exposure with the built in light. The only thing left was to help the audience and judges comprehend the problem and solution by providing a presentation that anyone – be they clinical or non-clinical – could follow. Despite being nervous for this presentation, the team helped me express myself and share the vision of this concept with the audience.  We went back to our seats knowing that we had done our best.

I was proud of what we created and shared. I was certainly impressed with all the ideas and innovations that were developed during this 36-hour Health Innovation Challenge. As I was running through all the other presentations in my head, they announced our group as the grand prize winners. We all screamed!  I couldn’t believe that we won.

The excitement I had in that moment brought tears to my eyes and then a smile to my face. All I could think about in that moment was how proud my teenage daughters would be of me.

Pamela Collier’s journey at the Health Innovation Challenge was part of an effort led by Atlanta-based Forge Health in collaboration with VA Center for Innovation’s ‘Innovators Network’ initiative. The vision of the VA Innovator’s Network is to build innovation as a competency across the VA to develop the best possible services and technologies for Veterans and their supporters. If you are interested in learning more about VA’s Innovators Network or running a Health Innovation Challenge at your own facility, email Andrea Ippolito ( at VA Center for Innovation.




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Published on Aug. 11, 2015

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