Increasingly, nursing students are being introduced to health policy and are encouraged to play an active role in some aspects of the policymaking process. Yes, I know, so much to do and so little time! However, opportunities to enhance one’s level of awareness and engagement regarding the policymaking process have never been greater. Planting the health policy seed has become important to professional nursing organizations, nurse educators, and even nursing students who applaud the push for integrating health policy and advocacy content in today’s nursing curricula.

Expected Competencies

Today’s nursing students must acquaint themselves with a number of policy issues that may impact their practice, the delivery of health care, and the profession of nursing. Nursing students are encouraged to develop increasing levels of knowledge, skills, and competencies related to health policy and advocacy commensurate with their advancing levels of nursing education. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) has identified key health policy competencies to include in nursing curricula starting at the baccalaureate through the doctoral level. Nurse educators are encouraged to incorporate these competencies when designing and implementing health policy courses for nursing students across all levels of nursing.

Starting at the baccalaureate level, nursing students are introduced to aspects of health care policy, finance, and regulatory environments. Students at the master’s level are engaged in analyzing health policies and their impact on health care financing, practice, and health outcomes. Nurses at this level are expected to help interpret research findings as well as advocate for policies that will improve the health of the public and advance the profession of nursing. Building on these skills and competencies, students at the doctoral level are expected to acquire the necessary skills to demonstrate a higher level of involvement of leadership in developing policies, influencing policymakers, and assuming influential leadership responsibilities at the local, state, national, and/or international level.

Early on during nursing education, one should begin thinking about how legislation informs nursing practice and how public policies influence the health outcomes of the patients and communities that one serves. For example, funding for nursing education and research is an ongoing issue for the profession. This need requires ongoing and persuasive advocacy and communication with state and federal legislative officials. Each year, numerous organizations lobby at our nation’s capital to make the case for funding to support nursing education and research. In fact, increased funding levels for nursing education and research are, in part, attributed to the diligent advocacy by the nursing community and other stakeholders.

Opportunities for Policy Development

Recognizing the need to introduce nursing students to the policymaking process, the AACN hosts an annual Student Policy Summit. This three-day summit is open to nursing students enrolled at AACN member institutions and is designed to familiarize students with the policymaking process and nurses’ role in professional advocacy. Students journey to Washington, DC, to take a glimpse at the policymaking process at the federal level. Speak with your school and/or faculty to ensure that there is representation and support from your academic institution during the call for applications. For information about future offerings, I encourage you to visit the AACN’s website.

Recognizing the need to foster the policy development of its members, the National Black Nurses Association offers an annual Health Policy Institute at their annual meeting. Speakers with expertise and experience in the health policy arena have presented on topics, including health equity, prescription drug abuse, reproductive rights, and mental health, to name a few. Another example is the Oncology Nursing Society, which provides an online tutorial on the policymaking process and ways to become an effective patient advocate. Many nursing organizations hold virtual and in-person annual lobby days empowering its members to advocate on behalf of patients, communities, and the profession.

Be sure to check with your student, professional, and specialty organizations to see what opportunities they have to help supplement your classroom education. Volunteerism is yet another way to develop familiarity with the policymaking process and gain experience in advocacy. For me, I volunteered for a long time with the American Cancer Society and the Susan G. Komen for the Cure. These experiences enabled me to establish the linkage among practice, research, and patience advocacy. This in turn fueled my passion for learning more about the policymaking process and the various legislative initiatives informing the health and well-being of communities of color.

Current Legislation

Although numerous bills are introduced each year, only a small percentage will make it through the entire process, culminating in action at the executive level and signed by the President for passage. Similarly, numerous bills may be introduced or reauthorized that will have some implications for patients (e.g., reimbursement for care, increased access to care, support for clinical trials) or the profession of nursing (e.g., funding for nursing education and research).  One bill that has implications for patients and the profession is the Nurse and Health Care Worker Protection Act of 2015 [H.R. 4266/S. 2408]. This piece of legislation was introduced by Representative John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) and Senator Al Franken (D-MN) on December 16, 2015, during the 114th Congressional Session. This is the only national legislation that improves the quality of patient care and protects nurses and health care workers by addressing the safe handling of patients. To track the progression of this legislation, visit www.congress.gov.

During your nursing education or even in the workplace, stimulate some discussion and support around legislation and health policy issues and topics that have implications for nursing. Nursing in the 21st century demands that we take our rightful place at the table and advocate for patients and the profession. Developing the wherewithal to do so at the student level is an important first step.

Janice Phillips

Janice Phillips, PhD, FAAN, RN, is Director of Government and Regulatory Affairs at CGFNS International, Inc. in Philadelphia.

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