Nursing News

The Growing Role of Nurses

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By Jennifer Larson, contributor

May 20, 2011 - The sky’s nearly the limit when it comes to the choices that nurses have today.

From filling an increasingly critical role in providing primary care to achieving certification in their chosen specialties to serving on boards and crafting policy, nurses are making greater contributions than ever before.

At the same time, more and more leaders are recognizing that nurses are crucial to the success of the health care system in the 21st century. Penny Kaye Jensen, DNP, APRN, president of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, noted that President Barack Obama has referred to nurses as “the beating heart” of the health care system.

Growing role of the advanced practice nurse

When the Institute of Medicine, in conjunction with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, released the landmark report “The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health” last October, one of the most talked-about recommendations was the call to remove limitations from nurses’ scope of practice, particularly for advanced practice nurses, including nurse practitioners (NPs).

Increasing the autonomy of nurse practitioners would allow those nurses to take on greater responsibilities. There is almost certainly going to be plenty of demand, too; because of a worsening shortage of primary care physicians, many experts are calling upon nurse practitioners to fill that role.

“Nurse practitioners have a proven track record of success and research has shown that they provide high quality primary care with outcomes that are similar to, or even better than, primary care physicians,” said Jensen.

In addition, the Affordable Care Act calls for more health care coverage for more Americans, which will translate into a greater demand for people to provide care for them.

“The law sets forth a lot of opportunities for us,” said Deborah Trautman, Ph.D., RN, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Policy.

Jensen agreed. “The ACA legislation provides money for nurse-managed primary care clinics and full participation of NPs as care providers in a variety of programs,” she said. “These changes are a step in the right direction.”

Increasing opportunities for specialization

The opportunities for registered nurses who are not advanced practice nurses continue to burgeon as well.

For many years, people tended to think of nurses as one homogenous group; they were expected to be able to take care of patients in whatever circumstances they were presented. But that has changed. Today, nurses are increasingly choosing to specialize.

The opportunity for official specialization for many nurses didn’t even arise until a couple of decades ago. In 1990, the American Nurses Association launched the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). Today, the ANCC offers 25 exams. The organization has awarded specialty credentials to least 250,000 nurses, designating their expertise in their chosen specialties. (In addition, more than 80,000 advanced practiced nurses have been certified by the ANCC.)

“It shows that you are continuing to educate yourself, and it also shows that you are continuing to raise your level of knowledge,” said Karen Drenkard, Ph.D., RN, executive director of ANCC.

Drenkard noted certification can also be reassuring to their patients, who can be assured that their nurses are at the top of their game.

Continued education for nurses who want to achieve their personal best is crucial for the health care system of the 21st century.

“We want a qualified, competent workforce to take care of the people who need care,” Drenkard said. “And nurses are really good at that.”

Wanted: Nurses for leadership positions

The Center to Champion Nursing in America, which is an initiative of AARP, the AARP Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has made it a priority to help more nurses find their way to positions of leadership in the executive boardroom. To carry out that goal, it launched an initiative called Nurse Leaders in the Boardroom. The program is designed to raise awareness of the contributions that nurses can make to boards--and prepare them for the path to achieving that goal.

Growing Role of Nurses
Kathleen Connell, RN, testifies before the Special Senate Committee on Aging. Connell belives that nurses can bring a much-needed perspective to many leadership positions.

Kathleen Connell, RN, BS, MA,  is an example of a nurse who decided to follow that path--and beyond. As a little girl, Connell dreamed of becoming a registered nurse. Eventually she fulfilled that dream. She also became involved in her community and earned a position on the local school board. Then she went on to serve in the Rhode Island state senate and eventually was elected as Rhode Island’s secretary of state.

Now, as the senior state director of the Rhode Island AARP, she is actively involved in advocacy work. She maintains that nurses, with their particular education and expertise, can and should bring their perspective to the decision-making table.

“Good nurses are good candidates for any board, not just health care boards or nonprofit boards. Any boards,” she said.

Trautman agreed. “Leadership opportunities aren’t restricted to any one environment,” she said, noting that a nurse’s experience can be valuable on many fronts.

She recommended that nurses who wish to broaden their leadership abilities look for ways to both develop and market themselves as important contributors.

For example, nurses can let people know they are interested in serving on advisory boards, write op-eds for local newspapers, increase their involvement with their professional organizations, and apply for fellowships, like Trautman did when she participated in a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation fellowship program from 2007 to 2009.

Nurses can “be true to who we are but also be more actively participating,” she said.

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