In 1996, two game-changing pieces of health care legislation had the attention of the industry. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was being enacted, and the Balanced Budget Act (BBA) was being debated. Nurse leaders crowded into public hearing rooms to try to understand the potential ramifications of HIPAA and to protest the challenges they foresaw if the BBA’s provisions were enacted. Many nurses watched in dismay, feeling like victims of federal policy-making engines. Some tried to learn more about political action in an effort to save their businesses and help their patients. Out of that experience, and others that followed, political activism started growing among nurses. Nurse professionals learned that if they weren’t more involved in influencing health care policy decisions, then they would have to live with the results.
We are in the midst of another dramatic upheaval in health care regulation, with most of the provisions required by the Affordable Care Act going into effect between now and 2014. Instead of being victims of the process, nurses are at the table more than ever before, and our involvement is making a difference. By fighting in the political arena for safe, high-quality health care, we give our patients a voice and function as true patient advocates at and beyond the bedside.
In addition, a growing number of nurses are finding that involvement in health care policy leads to new and exciting careers that didn’t seem possible just a few years ago. A new nursing specialty in health care policy is evolving and expanding. If the thought of making a real difference in the world gets your heart racing, healthcare policy nursing might be the career path for you.
What Does It Take to be a Successful Health Care Policy Nurse?
The most important trait of a nurse in the health care policy arena is a desire to make a real difference. If you believe that health care around the world can be improved, and you want to help make that happen, then you can learn the rest of what you need to know. Other favorable characteristics include:
- Willingness to engage in negotiation and the give-and-take of debate
- Persistence in researching the facts of a situation and maintaining a long-term commitment to policy developments
- Listening skills to help you understand the agendas of various stakeholders
- Communication ability to help you educate others on the issues
- Organizational skills to help you stay on top of multiple initiatives
What Paths Can I Take to Become a Health Care Policy Nurse?
Very few nurses start their careers with an in-depth understanding of how health care policy work is done. Some graduate nursing schools have recognized this need and offer educational programs in this growing specialty to registered nurses who have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. Chamberlain College of Nursing, for example, offers a health care policy specialty track in its Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree program. Students in this track complete a core of six MSN courses in theory, informatics, leadership, research, advanced nursing roles, and health care policy before progressing to six specialty classes. The specialty courses address health care systems, economics, global health, and leadership, all from a politics and policy perspective. A 100-hour practicum under the mentorship of experienced health care policy nurses leads to a capstone project that puts concepts into practice and gives students valuable experience in the work of this specialty.
After completing an educational program in health care policy, a nurse can be well-equipped and well-connected to launch this exciting career. It is possible to embark on a health care policy nursing career without an advanced degree, but many employers prefer it. Prior experience is often preferred; however, nurses who have completed a graduate program with a strong practicum have often gained significant experience in the field through rigorous academic work. Practicum projects such as researching a health care policy initiative and writing a summary for a political officeholder, or working with a community organization to secure political support for a new program, provide the experiential base employers seek.
Where Do Health Care Policy Nurses Work?
Health care policy nurses are sought after to evaluate the impact of health care policy changes, to advocate for patients and organizations as educators, writers, speakers, or researchers, and to help nurses mobilize around political action. These specialty nurses can work with lobbyists, politicians, consulting firms, health departments, education foundations, nonprofit groups, and government organizations in a wide range of roles. Some health care policy nurses enter academics, while others become community leaders or political officeholders themselves.
The range of tasks they perform can include analyzing health care policies, laws, and regulations, advising policymakers, leaders, and the public, administering grants, researching public health care issues, or planning and proposing new health care policies. Health care and education systems hire healthcare policy nurses as spokespeople, analysts, and regulatory officials. Wherever health care policy and health care organizations intersect is a place where these specialized nurses may be needed.
Why Should Nurses Enter the Policy Arena?
Health care policy nurses are the experts, the people that others turn to for advice on how governments should structure their health care systems to best meet the needs of their populations. Nurses who care about making a difference, who are passionate about health care issues, and who are willing to persevere through the challenges and triumphs of change can fashion a career that can have a broad impact on the world. There are currently seven nurses in the U.S. Congress, and their presence at the federal table means that our profession is being heard. Nurses know patients better than anyone, and it is our job to protect the safety, quality, and efficacy of global health care in every way we can.