A nursing career in public policy was considered unique decades ago. However, increasingly nurses have developed the skill and expertise needed to inform the policy-making process through their professional and voluntary endeavors. Nurses now serve in numerous leadership roles where they use their health policy expertise to shape the policy discourse, monitor the impact of legislation, and oversee regulatory processes.
In addition to the increased numbers of nurses working in governmental and nongovernmental agencies, nurses serve as elected officials and work as health policy consultants or health care lobbyists. Regardless of role or setting, nurses working in the policy arena are required to use their public policy acumen to inform legislation, oversee regulations, or advocate for policies that are of benefit to consumers, patients, and the profession.
Nurses serving as elected/appointed officials or health care lobbyists are immersed in the policy-making process and have a front row seat in influencing the public policy agenda. Both opportunities require a comprehensive knowledge of the complexities associated with lawmaking and a willingness to listen and assess varying perspectives. The ability to communicate well and build partnerships while working with diverse stakeholders cannot be overemphasized.
Noteworthy, three nurses are serving as elected officials during the 115th Congress. Representative Karen Bass, APRN, represents California’s 37th congressional district and is in her fourth term. Congresswoman Bass serves as a ranking member of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations.
Representative Diane Black, BSN, has represented Tennessee’s sixth congressional district since 2010. She serves on the House Ways and Means Committee.
Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, BSN, is the first nurse elected to the U.S. Congress and is now in her thirteenth term representing the 30th congressional district of Texas. Representative Johnson serves on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology; House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee; the Aviation Subcommittee; the Highways and Transit Subcommittee; and Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee.
Many nurses are familiar with former representative, Lois Capps. Capps represented California’s 24th congressional district after winning the seat in 1998 after her husband died in office. She championed numerous nursing and health care issues and started the Congressional Nursing Caucus.
No doubt, other nurses are well poised to follow suit bringing their expertise to an elected office. For example, Lauren Underwood launched her campaign last fall to represent the fourteenth congressional district in Illinois. Underwood brings a wealth of nursing and government expertise and is passionate about ensuring access to high-quality health care for all.
Nurses are also well suited to serve as health care lobbyists because of their vast knowledge of nursing, health, and health care. An extensive knowledge of these and other areas is critical to advocating for legislation aimed at improving access to health care, enhancing health outcomes, and transforming our health care delivery system. Additional competencies needed for such a role include strong interpersonal communication skills, research/analytical skills, detail orientation, knowledge of political, legislative, and regulatory processes, and the ability to create and deliver messages to a wide array of diverse stakeholders including legislative officials. Health lobbyists are responsible for conducting policy analyses and summarizing information that is suitable for a variety of audiences. Nurse lobbyists may work as a consultant employed by a professional/specialty nursing or non-nursing organization, health care facility, insurance company, or pharmaceutical company, to name a few.
The current push to increase the number of nurses serving on boards provides yet another opportunity for nurses to become more engaged in aspects of the policy-making process. Depending on the mission of the organization, board members may be responsible for shaping a legislative or advocacy agenda on behalf of the constituents they serve. To illustrate, I acquired some of my health policy skills while serving as the Chair of Public Policy for my local Susan G. Komen Affiliate. In this capacity, I along with board members advocated for breast cancer funding for underserved women and helped to shape and monitor the organization’s legislative agenda. This experience provided a unique opportunity for me to serve as a lead spokesperson providing testimony before my state legislature regarding the “Reducing Breast Cancer Disparities bill.” This bill includes significant provisions designed to reduce breast cancer disparities among underserved and underinsured women across the entire state.
In addition to some of the previously mentioned career opportunities in the health policy arena, nurses in the following roles utilize their policy knowledge and expertise to advance the nursing profession and transform today’s health care delivery system:
- Dean/Associate Dean of a School or College of Nursing
- Director of Government and/or Regulatory Affairs
- Office of Government Relations
- Director/CEO of a Government Agency
- CEO or Executive Director of a Nonprofit Health Care Organization
- CEO of a Professional Nursing Organization
- Chief Nursing Officer
- Surgeon General/Assistant Surgeon General
- Chair of Health Policy Committee for a Professional or Specialty Organization
- Health Commissioner
- Board Member for a Health Department, Hospital, or Community-Based Health Care Organization
- Chair of a Health Policy Committee for a Voluntary Organization
- Nurse Attorney
- Hospital Administrator
- Executive Director of a State Board of Nursing
- Health Policy Analyst
- Nurse Regulator
Nurses wishing to pursue a career in health policy can begin by first identifying what is most important to them. Nurses who do not have a background in political science or law may need to invest in professional development through formal/informal education. Taking health policy courses is a good step as such course work provides an overview of the policy-making process and may provide some exposure to in-person or virtual lobbying.
Getting involved with the advocacy/legislative arm of one’s professional or specialty organization is yet another great way to gain exposure and experience related to the policy-making process. Many nursing organizations have a policy agenda and work to ensure that their voices are heard on things of importance to the profession and those they serve. Serving as an intern in a legislative office for an elected official may also provide some beginning exposure to the policy and legislative process. These types of experiences can enhance one’s credibility when launching a career in public policy.
Participating in health policy fellowships, internships, or other structured immersion activities can go a long way in laying the foundation for future engagement in the policy arena. I cannot overestimate the value of talking with those already in the field. Elected officials, nurse/health care lobbyists, and individuals currently running for office as well as other nurse leaders can provide valuable insights regarding the expectations for this type of role. Attending a state board of nursing meeting is another excellent way to become acquainted with the regulatory aspects of the policy-making process. Finally, staying abreast of current and emerging issues in health care and nursing provides a critical foundation for future advocacy and political activism in the health policy arena.
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.
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.
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.
The need for nurses to become familiar with and engaged in the policy-making process has never been greater. While nurse leaders throughout time have emphasized the need for nurses to become more involved in advocating for patients and the profession, the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the release of the Institute of Medicine’s The Future of Nursing report both call for the transformation of health care delivery and underscore opportunities for policy engagement.
The renewed interest in policy engagement for nurses is further evidenced by the proliferation of health policy books and resources for the nursing profession and the increased emphasis on including health policy content in nursing education programs. In fact, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing developed a set of core competencies for integration into nursing education programs, all of which emphasize the need for nurses to develop competencies in this area.
Practice, Research, Policy: Connecting the Dots
I recall the aha moment when I realized the importance of identifying the policy implications of my practice and research. While I had worked in underserved communities for many years, it was not until I started conducting breast cancer disparities research with underserved women that it occurred to me that someone (e.g., survivors or cancer organizations) was advocating for legislation to improve access to cancer screening services. Concurrently, the Breast and Cervical Cancer Mortality Prevention Act of 1990 directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to establish the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program to assist low-income and uninsured women in gaining access to breast and cervical cancer screening and diagnostic services. Expanding on the need for follow-up care, the Breast and Cervical Cancer Prevention and Treatment Act was signed into law in 2000, helping to ensure access to breast cancer treatment services for low-income and uninsured women diagnosed with breast cancer.
As a volunteer for the American Cancer Society and the chair of public policy for the Chicagoland Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, I started participating in lobby days advocating for more affordable and accessible cancer prevention and treatment services.
Building on my desire for more engagement, I began lobbying with my professional nursing organizations to advocate for funding to support nursing education and research. Thankfully, I realized the strong connection between practice, research, and policy—and now encourage nurses to do the same.
To Get You Started, Suggested Activities Include the Following:
• Complete a health policy course during your nursing education and your nursing career.
• Become more involved through your professional and specialty organizations.
• Attend state lobby days sponsored by your nursing organizations or home institutions.
• Participate in virtual lobby days.
• Invite congressional leaders to tour your nursing program, professional meetings, or community activities.
• Look for policy implications in presentations, publications, and textbooks.
• Seize the opportunity to identify public policy implications in your everyday practice.
• Incorporate a policy component into your clinical experience (e.g., student interviews with state lawmakers and city council members, and student attendance at public hearings).
• Tap into your institution’s Office of Government Relations.
• Read policy-related journals (e.g., Nursing Outlook or Policy, Politics, and Nursing Practice).
• Become familiar with websites that offer health policy resources (e.g., National League for Nursing, American Nurses Association, and the American Public Health Association).
• Tap into your professional organization’s resources for policy development.
• Share your personal experiences in the policy arena.
Regardless of practice setting, there are public policies and legislative initiatives that influence the scope of nursing practice or the amount of available resources to provide patient care or support nursing education. For example, the recent push toward full scope of nursing practice has already influenced the way advanced practice nurses practice in each state. Members of the nursing community, along with a number of stakeholders, are working with state and federal legislative officials to see what legislative and regulatory actions are needed to ensure that nurses are practicing to the full extent of their preparation. The outcomes of these efforts will have huge implications for the nursing profession and the patients we serve. Akin to this are the provisions outlined in the ACA, many of which have direct implications for nurses. Key provisions focused on primary workforce, patient-centered care, nurse-managed health centers, school-based clinics, quality improvement, and patient safety, to name a few. These provisions present opportunities for nurses to pursue leadership roles that will enable them to help implement aspects of the ACA legislation.
What a great time for nurses to contribute to the policy discourse that is taking place on the local, state, and federal level. From the new grad to the more seasoned professional, nurses are encouraged to become familiar with the policy-making process and identify ways in which they can make a meaningful contribution to improving the quality of patient care and advancing the profession through advocacy and political activism.
Health Policy Resources
American Association of Colleges of Nursing Government Affairs
American Nurses Association Policy & Advocacy
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
GovTrack (site for tracking legislative bills)
Kaiser Family Foundation
National Conference of State Legislatures
National League for Nursing Advocacy & Public Policy
Office of Legislative Policy and Analysis
Office of Minority Health