By Jennifer Larson, contributor
September 12, 2012 - The quickest way to frustrate Eleanor Sullivan, PhD, RN, is to utter these words: “What can I do? I’m just a nurse.”
Eleanor Sullivan, PhD, RN, says that nurses should always present themselves as professionals, build their network and be ready to share about how they make a difference in patients' lives.
“I could just scream when anyone says that,” said Sullivan, a former president of the international nursing honor society Sigma Theta Tau and the author of Becoming Influential: A Guide for Nurses, now in its second printing.
Nurses do have influence--perhaps more than they realize--because they are so well-respected by the public. Year after year, nurses top the list of most trustworthy professions on a survey conducted by the Gallup organization.
But do nurses take advantage of all this goodwill? Do they capitalize on their reputations and wield their influence in ways that could potentially affect greater numbers of people? Not always. Not often enough, many experts say.
In fact, a survey that was conducted for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) in 2009 found that nurses are viewed as very trusted sources of information by opinion leaders--but these same opinion leaders view nurses as having less influence on health policy, planning and management. The report, titled “Nursing Leadership from Bedside to Boardroom: Opinion Leaders’ Perceptions,” noted that nurses are often not perceived as important decision makers or revenue generators, which contribute to their relative lack of influence.
Susan Hassmiller, PhD, RN, RWJF’s senior advisor for nursing, wants to change that. As director for RWJF’s Future of Nursing: Campaign for Action, in partnership with AARP, she is always searching for ways to make sure that the nursing perspective is included in the conversation in more high profile ways. One part of her job includes working with the campaign’s state action coalitions, which are working to channel more nurses into positions of influence, including membership on hospital boards.
She noted that nurses can also take steps to build and exert more influence in their own workplaces and communities.
“Start small,” Hassmiller said. “Understand what it means to be a board member, to work as a team, to speak when you need to speak, to listen when you need to listen, to understand budgets. Start small. But do it.”
How can you, as a nurse, become more influential? Here are 10 specific strategies:
1. Speak up at work. Make your voice be heard by providing input on hospital matters that may affect you, your fellow nurses and your patients, such as renovations to patient rooms or technology that you will use every day in caring for patients.
2. Speak up on health care matters that go beyond your own place of employment. Contact your local or state lawmakers or even your representatives on Capitol Hill to express your concerns or give your opinions. Emphasize your experience as a nurse.
3. Manage your career. Take stock of your interests and goals. Hassmiller suggested that you determine your passion and then find a local organization or local chapter of a national organization where you can volunteer. Along the same lines, Sullivan noted that it’s important to set some career goals for yourself, and determine steps to help you progress toward them.
4. Volunteer at work. A great way to build your credibility within your own organization is by contributing your input. Volunteer to be on a committee that matches up with your interests or concerns.
5. Be able to articulate what you do. Be able to tell people why you chose nursing as a career and how you make a difference in people’s lives. “Every nurse has loads of stories about patients and what they did for those patients,” said Sullivan.
6. Get more education. The more education you have, the better prepared you will be, Hassmiller said. Also, a higher level of education can give you additional credibility. Look into online education or specialty certification if returning to school for a more advanced degree isn’t a realistic option for you.
7. Join a professional organization. You can gain valuable education and experience, as well as have access to opportunities for service and leadership training.
8. Build your network. You can make important contacts through your various community activities and professional memberships. Let people know that you’re interested in serving on a board of directors or providing input to a legislative body. You might even seek out a mentor. Don’t forget to help others connect, too; hopefully, they will repay the favor one day. “They say it’s who you know, but I think it’s who knows you that’s more important,” said Sullivan.
9. Develop excellent communication skills. Studies show that breakdowns in communication between health care professionals can lead to poor patient outcomes. Brush up on your communication skills because it will help your patients—but also because it contributes to your overall professionalism.
10. Recognize that image does matter. “Everywhere you go, you’re a nurse,” said Sullivan. “Because as soon as someone knows you’re a nurse, they’re judging the (whole) profession.” Take care to put forward a strong, professional image, which includes being confident, well-groomed and courteous. “Those little things add up,” said Sullivan.
If you’re ever tempted to just sit back and stay quiet, remember why you went into nursing. Remember your experience with patients and your commitment to ensure that they get the best care. And be confident about speaking up.
“Don’t do it for yourself,” said Hassmiller. “Do it for your patients.”
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