nurse leadersI am incredibly proud that nursing is consistently named the most trusted profession. As I consider the huge debt we owe to the brave pioneers who paved the way, I wonder what, if anything, I could possibly contribute.

In the past, nurses such as Florence Nightingale and Mary Ann Bickerdyke have served as nurse leaders and patient advocates. Recently, Gail Sandidge paid the ultimate price as she led the way for patient safety. To honor our heritage, let’s explore nurses leading the way in the past, present, and future.

Nurses in Politics

Even amid the nursing shortage, the nursing population is present in every area of society and is becoming more diverse. According to Katie Hall, MSN, RN, a member of the National Nursing Network Organization advocacy team, nurses outnumber doctors 4:1.

Nurses are becoming political leaders. In my home state of Georgia, a former nurse, Senator Renee Unterman (R-Buford) led the way to help advance practice nurses obtain prescriptive authority. She remains an ardent supporter of nursing at the Georgia Capitol.

In Texas, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) led the way as the first nurse elected to Congress. Now in her 11th term, she continues to blaze a path as she introduced HR 485 or The National Nurse Act of 2013. She says, “This legislation has struck a chord throughout the nursing profession and nurses from every region in our country are rallying to assure its passage. They too believe that designating the Chief Nurse Officer of the U.S. Public Health Service as the National Nurse for Public Health will increase recognition of this important nurse leader to enhance prevention efforts and promote public health throughout the general population."

Why We Need a National Nurse

The National Nurse Act is not an easy fix or magic wand, but helps nurses speak with a unified voice to address our common passion and desire, health promotion. In fact, not only does this issue bridge the many entry levels and practice settings of nursing, it has crossed party lines.

Following a recent Congressional briefing, the number of co-sponsors has increased to 90. The bill is uncharacteristically brief and easy to understand. Teri Mills, MS, RN, CNE, and President of the National Nursing Network Organization, believes this is one reason the movement is gaining such momentum. Another reason, according to Mills, is that research drives this legislation as chronic, preventable conditions affect more than 130 million Americans and contribute greatly to our out-of-control healthcare costs. 

Additionally, the National Nurse Act addresses the National Prevention Strategy and Healthy People 2020 goals. The National Nurse Act also supports the Institute of Medicine’s Future of Nursing and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s goals for nurses to be more visible leaders for health promotion and disease prevention. 

Perhaps, you wonder why it is necessary to re-designate the Chief Nurse Officer as the National Nurse for Public Health (NNPH), since the nation has a Surgeon General.  According to Mills, the Surgeon General is tasked with synthesizing data to advise and “prescribe” to the American public. Nurses are experts at translating that information and implementing evidence based practice to achieve these goals.

The Pivotal Role of Nurse Leaders

Among Florence Nightingale's greatest achievements were defining nursing and hospital reform. Today, as the focus of the nation’s health care shifts from the present sick-care system to Nightingale’s vision of one based on prevention and wellness, it is critical nurses are visible leaders.

Nurses possess an uncanny ability to bypass bureaucracy, scrounge supplies and help run hospitals.  Modern nurses need the tenacity of my hero, Mary Ann Bickerdyke. When questioned about her authority, she would reply, “On the authority of Lord God Almighty, have you anything that outranks that? When a surgeon informed her, “There is no room for you in this hospital”, she firmly replied, “I am staying and if you put me out one door I shall come in another.  If you bar the door, I will come in a window.”

She was a fierce patient advocate. Her grassroots efforts went as far as securing cows and chickens to produce milk and eggs to ensure a nutritious diet for her patients in the civil war hospital.

Grassroots Development

The National Nurse movement is also a grassroots, all-volunteer movement. It capitalizes on an existing position requiring little additional funding and without duplicating of existing services. It offers great potential return for minimal investment.  

Headquartered in the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General is the Medical Reserve Corps. It functions as a clearinghouse for information and best practices to help communities establish, implement and maintain MRC units across the nation.

The NNPH network of nurse volunteers in every community could help nurses like Roslyn Pruitt educate the public, promote prevention activities, and replicate successful prevention efforts. Pruitt was the Hospital Compliance Officer at Lindy Boggs Medical Center during Hurricane Katrina. She says, “There was so much that went on in New Orleans hospitals. Many nurses saved many lives under horrendous circumstances. We have an incredible opportunity to learn from this experience. Nurses have an important role in disaster preparedness and response as well as responding every day to the needs of our community and our patients. Leading in the best of circumstances is difficult. Leading during Katrina was a life altering experience.”

When asked if she would work another hurricane, Roslyn said, “Part of my job is to be with people who need me. I'm unique, so the experience qualifies me to be here.” Pruitt has become an advocate of empowering the public and nurses in disaster preparation.

Susan Sullivan, MSN, PHN, RN, and Secretary of the National Nursing Network Organization states the local health departments would lead the way. In the rich tradition of Lillian Wald who served as a national leader in service to children, families, and the poor on New York’s Lower East Side, the NNPH would serve as a nurse leader to advocate for enhanced prevention in all communities. Efforts would focus on chronic, preventable conditions which are public health epidemics.

Obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease burden individuals, employers, and the government. The NNPH would provide education to prevent and treat these conditions. Sullivan says the NNPH would serve as a single point of leadership for wellness, promoting health, improving health literacy and decreasing health disparities. 

Get Involved

So why are so few nurses aware of our rich legacy or this movement? As modern nurses, we have big shoes to fill. We have a responsibility to follow in the footsteps of our nursing pioneers and an opportunity to lead the way in this historic movement. 

As always, I end with a call to action. Get involved at your own comfort level. Donate your time, money, or effort to raise awareness. Present this issue to your nursing organization. Consider using this issue as a policy topic in your graduate studies. Make a call. Write an article or a letter to the editor.

Visit the National Nurse Take Action Web Page. Here you will find a sample letter and phone script with a link to contact your legislator to request their co-sponsorship on the bill. Lobby at the state and national level. As Florence Nightingale once said, "I think one's feeling waste themselves in words, they ought all be distilled in actions and into actions brings results."

How can you join the movement today? Share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below.