In Conversation with a Trailblazer
In Conversation provides a glimpse into the life of an ‘outlier’ — an exceptional person going above and beyond to improve outcomes in their field. This issue’s guest is Lauren Barber, CEO and Founder of Needlecalm and the 2023 winner of the Health Minister's Award for Nursing Trailblazers for her contributions to the medical field with her medtech device aimed at reducing the fear and pain associated with needles.
Tell us about the early days in your nursing career.
My first role was as an assistant in nursing at a nursing home. I worked one to two afternoons and one day on the weekend. I was in Year 10 when I started, so it was great to have hands-on experience and develop basic nursing skills. I used to ride my bike to the nursing home and stay there for a couple of hours to help with dinners and bedtime.
What were some of the key learnings in your early days?
Although aged care is sometimes seen to be a challenging area to work in, I realised during my early days as an assistant that patients become ‘difficult’ and unsettled when their basic needs aren’t met. Whenever I have a patient in distress I always go through a little checklist in my head first to address basics like: are they in pain, are they hungry/thirsty, do they need to go to the bathroom?
Throughout my career I have always applied this checklist to every patient. It makes working out concerns and problems a lot easier when you know that you have sorted out the easy stuff first.
This has formed a good base for how I like to approach my work generally and why I started NeedleCalm. I realised that the root problem many patients faced was needle phobia and worked from there to solve it. In general, it’s a great method that you can also use to work backwards when problem solving.
What was the inspiration and what is your long-term vision?
The inspiration for starting NeedleCalm was my needle stick injury and, as a result, being a patient on the receiving end of many needles and cannulas.
Prior to my needle stick injury I considered myself quite skilled at performing needle procedures. When I was a patient, I realised that something so small can impact the patient experience significantly.
I started connecting the dots and found that many patients who weren’t in the best of health had a degree of needle phobia and healthcare avoidance that stemmed from a poor experience. It never seemed right to me that hospitals are places where you should feel safe, and yet many people are afraid to get medical help due to needle phobia.
I was at a point in my life with no significant responsibilities such as a mortgage or young children, and thought that if I didn’t take the chance I wouldn’t have the opportunity again.
My long-term vision is to eventually have every healthcare facility set up with clinical practice guidelines and training for clinicians on managing patients with needle phobia.
What is the easiest and hardest part of your role as a startup founder?
I would be lying if I said there was ever an easy part. There’s a fun part, such as meeting new colleagues and attending networking events. The hardest part for me is doing everything for the business, all at once. There are a lot of things I have had to learn such as social media, making posts, learning the algorithms, managing cash flow forecasts and accounting. But once you get the hang of it, it can sometimes be enjoyable.
The most enjoyable part for me is speaking with patients and helping them take the next steps, however small or big. It’s not an easy journey but this aspect makes up for all the frustration.
What would your advice be for someone wanting to start a health-related venture? What are some initial challenges they might face?
MedTech is notorious for being hard to crack. It often takes a lot longer than you ever anticipate, and costs more than you budget for. My advice would be to do as much user testing as you can before you start clinical trials and manufacturing. And save as much money as you can, and do as much of the grunt work as possible before engaging consultants.
For someone wanting to start a health-related venture, the initial challenges that can be difficult to overcome are typically related to finding finance, a suitable partner or co-founder, and constructing a business plan. Sometimes it’s also quite difficult to discuss your idea to get end-user feedback or interest without giving away your secret sauce.
What’s your parting advice?
I believe a lot of what we do in nursing is common sense. However, there is also a belief that we do things without ever questioning why, and do things because that is the way it has always been done.
This is how I have approached the whole process with NeedleCalm: working out the why and the long-term effects of it. Sometimes simple changes can make a tremendous difference.
For instance, we get taught as part of medication administration training to make sure we have the right medication and the right patient. However, if you are administering a needle, such as an anticoagulant injection, we don’t routinely ask the patient how they are with needles and give them a choice for their preferred site of injection.
I learned this the hard way. I recall once very early in my training how a patient who had been in ICU for three days — who had been poked and prodded with needles to no end — grabbed this injection out of my hand and threw it across the room screaming “no more needles!”.
Incorporating open dialogue would help prevent this, and improve the patient experience and medication compliance.
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