EDUCATION
August 3, 2021

7 Careers for Nurses Who Want to Impact Policy Change

By: Chaunie Brusie, RN, BSN

Nurses play an irreplaceable role in influencing the lives of patients and their families every day. From seemingly simple acts like ensuring their pain is kept controlled to explaining complicated medical information in a way that everyone can understand, nurses have a huge and tangible impact on people’s health. 

Despite their role in caring directly for the health of their patients, however, nurses are in a pivotal position to also directly influence the health policies that shape healthcare culture, work conditions for other healthcare professionals and public health.

While every nurse makes an impact in the lives of their patients and their families, there are certain careers where nurses can make an even bigger difference and get involved in influencing health policy, both at a career and personal level. 

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The Role of Nurses in Health Policy

2020 had been dubbed “The Year of the Nurse” before any of us knew what would actually be in store for nurses in 2020. And while the year of the nurse may have looked a little different than anyone actually pictured it, it was a year that allowed a big spotlight to be shined on nurses. 

The pandemic highlighted the importance of ensuring that nurses – the people who are actually on the frontlines providing healthcare – are also involved in the decision-making and policies that guide how that healthcare is delivered and shaped. 

Nurse.org has been leading the conversation on bringing nurses into the forefront of policy-shaping, from speaking with the President of the American Nurses Association, Ernest Grant, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, on the importance of nurses getting involved in advocacy to encouraging the presence of a nurse on the Presidential COVID-19 advisory team to highlighting the conversation with Nurse Alice around if the U.S. is ready to see nurse-owned hospitals

The bottom line is that nurses at the bedside know healthcare like no one else. Because of that, they not only deserve a seat at any decision-making table but their presence is vitally needed to ensure the future of healthcare. 

Nurses Face Real Barriers to Getting Their Voices Heard

Of course, despite the importance of getting nurses involved on a policy level, there are real barriers to actually making that happen. 

As International Nurses Review points out, some of those barriers include a lack of support in the workplace for nurses to be involved beyond the direct bedside, as well as time. Because after all, if you’re so burned out from actually taking care of patients with COVID-19, how can you carve out the time and energy to seek out opportunities to discuss policies about COVID-19?

The journal also pointed to “real bureaucratic walls” that inhibit nurses from being able to openly voice concerns, as well as the lack of confidence and knowledge nurses may need to understand their role and contribution in policy-making. 

The challenge to solve how exactly to get more nurses into policy-making roles isn’t an easy one, but it can start with nurses using their careers as a way to pivot into positions where they can influence policies. 

7 Careers That Allow You to Make Real Change as a Nurse

If you’re a nurse feeling called to take action and make a real impact, here are 7 careers that can provide opportunities to get involved in policy-making or just make a difference in the lives of the patients you serve or the nurses you work alongside.

1. Nurse Practitioner 

Nurse practitioners have a lot of flexibility in their profession because they can move seamlessly from the bedside to having a seat at the administrative level, where decisions are being made. 

NPs can care directly for patients as well as work as team leaders and managers. Giving them an opportunity to hear and communicate with nurses while being able to discuss policies with the healthcare administration. 

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2. Clinical Nurse Specialist 

While it’s not as well known of a role as a nurse practitioner, the Clinical Nurse Specialist's job is all about making change and improving outcomes, both for patients, as well as nurses and healthcare systems as a whole. 

Clinical Nurse Specialists work to advance the practice of nursing and continue to use the nursing model in healthcare. They look at questions like, “How can I help nurses throughout the whole system of a hospital?” and then work to find solutions. 

A clinical nurse specialist functions in 5 main sub-roles: cynical practice, leader, educator, researcher and consultant.

Typically, CNSs work in hospital settings. In some states, CNSs can act independently from a physician, while in others they are required to work under the supervision of a physician. 

3. Nurse Educator

Nurse Educators often work at the healthcare facility level, educating not only nurses, but all healthcare staff with important updates and training for the facility. 

In this role, a nurse educator would have the unique opportunity to hear directly from nurses about the issues that matter to them, in order to bring their concerns and ideas to administration and influence facility-wide policy changes. They can even go beyond that by making bigger impacts in the community at large. 

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4. Nursing Professor

The International Nurses Review notes that a huge part of integrating policymaking is to educate nurses on their role in shaping policy at the ground level. 

By introducing the importance of nurses at the policy-shaping level during their nursing instruction, we can make sure that all new nurses fully understand that they not only have a right to be involved in shaping policy, but that their presence is an integral part of nursing. 

That means more nurses need to step into nurse faculty roles to teach new nurses and inspire future generations of policy changers. 

5. Nurse Manager

Nurse managers can make a big difference in the lives of the nurses they oversee. As the managers of nursing staff in a healthcare facility, they are in charge of creating schedules for employees, giving annual performance reviews, and helping to create policies within the unit. As such, they are in a unique position to create change on a daily basis. 

6. Chief Nursing Officer 

Even higher up than a nurse manager, a Chief Nursing Officer is the top-level nurse within an organization and oversees other nurses and the implementation of patient care.

As a CNO, you’re the voice for the nurses in your organization. You’ll work to create an environment that empowers your nursing staff and allows them to provide the best possible patient care with the appropriate resources and support.

7. Healthcare Manager 

Healthcare Managers are responsible for ensuring that the healthcare team has the tools and funding needed to deliver quality healthcare. No easy task, but one that’s more important now than ever before.

Healthcare managers can manage an entire healthcare system or hospital, a department within a hospital, or they can work in government agencies crafting healthcare policy. Either way, you’ll be directly impacting the lives of the healthcare workers you’re overseeing.

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Ways to Get Started in a Career in Health Policy 

While choosing to advance your career can certainly help you influence change at a policy level, any nurse can choose to get involved in shaping policies. 

Here are some suggestions of how you can get started impacting the policies that will, in turn, impact your work and your patients. 

Advance Your Education

If you want to make more of an impact, one great way is to rise in the ranks. Many of the positions we talked about above require a master's degree or higher. So, if you've been on the fence about going back to school to earn your MSN, the ability to create change for yourself and other nurses might be the reason you need.

And if you're specifically looking to make policy change as a nurse, you should absolutely consider the healthcare administration route. Going into healthcare administration doesn't mean turning your back on nursing, it can mean lending your unique nursing perspective to decision-makers that need it!

Here are some master's degrees to consider if you're looking to up your impact:

Join a Professional Organization

Becoming a member of a professional nursing organization, such as the American Nurses’ Association, helps plug you into a community of nurses around the country, elevating and amplifying your voice with other nursing professionals.

For instance, you can get educated on issues that matter through their social media or newsletters, take continuing education courses, learn about upcoming legislation and sign petitions for causes that matter to you. 

You can attend in-person meetings or advocate at Congress when it’s applicable or connect with local leaders. ANA is even hosting a virtual Policy, Innovation and Advocacy forum in September of 2021, so anyone can get involved in policy, right from home. They also have an action-focused resource, RNAction Center, specifically for nurses who want to get more involved at a political level.  

Get Involved in Your Local Nurses’ Union

Your local nurses’ union can be an immediate and powerful way to get started influencing policies, especially those that can directly impact your work, and that of your coworkers. Talk to your current union reps about open positions or how you can get involved. 

Speak Up to Local Officials

One of the most effective places to get started making an impact is at the local level. Get to know who your elected officials are--locally and at the state level, and practice getting comfortable reaching out to them to get your voice heard and the issues that matter to you elevated. It’s a seemingly small practice that can have a huge impact. 

Lend Your Voice

There is a needed and growing emphasis on the need for diversity and inclusive nursing experts for many areas of healthcare practice, reform and to help enact policy. If you have a passion for advocating and educating on issues of diversity and inclusion, your voice is necessary to ensure policies being set are meeting the needs of all healthcare professionals. You can get involved with lending your voice or learning from other leaders in the diversity and inclusive nursing space. 

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