Nurses experience the daily influence of policy and politics in healthcare. As the largest group in the global healthcare workforce, nurses are uniquely positioned to see how health policy impacts patients and communities. All nurses can advocate for change, whether within their workplace, nursing organizations, government agencies, or directly with policymakers and elected officials. Every nurse can have a voice in the creation and enforcement of health policies.
What Is Health Policy?
The World Health Organization defines health policy as "the decision, plans, and actions that are undertaken to achieve specific health care goals within a society." Basically, it encompasses any law, regulation or research that impacts patient health and care providers. There are many health policy categories, including public health, individual health, care providers, pharmaceutical companies and healthcare systems.
Why Are Nurses Important in Health Policy?
Through policy work, nurses can influence healthcare for patients now and in the future. You can advocate for patient information to be at an appropriate level in plain language using health literacy guidelines. Or you could note if your work standards, such as policy and procedures or clinical pathways, follow evidence-based practice. You may decide to join a committee or council to facilitate best practice change.
Nurses may join a national nursing organization to gain power with a collective voice. For example, the Oncology Nursing Society (ONS) hosts the ONS Center for Advocacy and Health Policy to highlight cancer policy priorities, position statements, resources and coalitions. Many ONS members frequently testify before Congress, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institutes of Health on healthcare issues that impact oncology nurses and patients with cancer.
Each year, nurses from several states join together on Capitol Hill Days to influence the legislative environment. Like many nursing specialty organizations, ONS has a Health Policy Director who leads the organization's legislative and regulatory affairs at the national level while also empowering nurses to effect change in their own community and state.
What Is the Role of Nurses in Health Policy?
Very few nurses choose a career in health policy, but most can shape health policy. You can advocate for individual patient health equity, resources or staff support.
- Individual Health — Nurses have a key role in understanding, identifying, and responding to barriers that prevent people from being as healthy as possible. These health disparities (or inequalities) are complex and often interwoven. Nurses consider social, cultural, and economic factors to work toward health equity by advocating for their patients.
- Population Health — According to the National Advisory Council on Nurse Education and Practice (NACNEP), all nurses should focus on population health, serving in some capacity as community/public health nurses to address the needs of individuals, groups, families and populations in a variety of communities. Nurses often advocate for resources, services, basic provisions, and education for their community.
- Staff Health — Nurses in various positions use leadership skills to help teams function better, ultimately improving patient care. Safe staffing and strategies to increase nurses' personal wellness are critical to the health of our nation. The Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation campaign focuses on five key areas: physical activity, nutrition, rest, quality of life, and safety.
As a nurse, you have the unique education and experience to influence policy. Below are some ways that you can help shape health policy.
- Learn how policy is made.
- Know who makes policy at your workplace and in your community.
- Explore which health policies matter most to you.
- Investigate which legislators support policies of interest to you.
- Write to your legislator about issues impacting patient care.
- Inform colleagues about opportunities to influence policy change.
- Join organizations that lobby on behalf of patients or nurses.
Nurses are essential advocates for health policy. As frontline team members trying to meet multiple patients' unique needs, nurses are key to relating personal experiences of how health policy impacts patient care. Nurse leaders can use their sphere of influence to shape policy within their organization and encourage nursing staff's health policy involvement.
Nurses and nursing students can be mindful of the policy development issues that affect their practice and patient care. Collectively, nurses can take the lead in support of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement's Triple Aim — better health, better care and lower cost.
Learn more about the University of North Carolina Wilmington's online RN to BSN program.
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