May 19, 2019
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How Do Clinical Nurse Leaders Function Within a Healthcare System?

The increasing demand for licensed registered nurses (RNs) has resulted in many nursing professions, including clinical nurse leaders (CNLs). Those unfamiliar with the nursing hierarchy often wonder how clinical nurse leaders function within a healthcare system. Like all nursing professionals, the clinical nurse leader has very specific roles within the healthcare system. Clinical nurse leaders often design programs that ensure the nursing staff provides the very best healthcare to patients. Here is an overview of clinical nurse leaders.

Related resource: Top 20 Programs in Clinical Nurse Leadership and Nursing Administration

What are Clinical Nurse Leaders?

Clinical nurse leaders are trained nursing professionals who act in the role of patient advocates, educators, and team leaders. They design, evaluate and implement patient care by overseeing the care the healthcare team provides at the clinical level rather than at the administrative level, which typically falls on the shoulders of other nursing leaders. Clinical nurse leaders are highly-trained registered nurses who work alongside doctors, social workers, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, and clinical nurse specialists and collaborate on how to plan and implement the highest level of medical care. Their duties include:

• Mentoring nursing staff

• Collaborating on patient care

• Collecting and assessing outcomes, patient risks, and care plans

• Giving lateral integration of health services

• Developing direct-care activities for the nursing staff

How Clinical Nurse Leaders Differ From Clinical Nurse Specialists

Although clinical nurse leaders and clinical nurse specialists (CNSs) share many of the same duties, they are two separate professions and differ in the following ways.

• Their training programs have a different curriculum.

• Clinical nurse specialists are advanced practice registered nurses, and CNLs are not.

• CNLs have certification specific to CNLs.

• CNLs generally have master’s degrees, and CNSs usually have doctoral degrees.

• CNSs can diagnose and treat patients and prescribe medications, but CNLs cannot.

• CNLs usually collaborate with all healthcare professionals while CNSs work more with the nursing staff.

How to Become a Clinical Nurse Leader

To become a clinical nurse leader, the individual must first be a registered nurse, which can be accomplished by earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing and passing the NCLEX-RN licensing exam. Nursing students must complete coursework, lab courses, and clinical residencies. Once the candidate is an RN, he or she must earn a master’s degree in nursing. The master’s degree nursing program requires the student complete coursework and between 100 and 200 clinical nursing hours.

During this phase of the program, the student will usually have to choose an area of specialization, such as pediatrics, home health, obstetrics, adult/gerontology, oncology to name just a few. The RN must enroll in a CNL program, which requires completion of specific CNL courses and from 400 to 500 clinical hours at the CNL level. Upon completion, the candidate can take the Clinical Nurse Leader Certification Exam through the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

Career Outlook for Clinical Nurse Leaders

Despite their advanced training and leadership roles, clinical nurse leaders are grouped in the category of RNs by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). According to the BLS, registered nurses are expected to see job growth of 15% between 2016 and 2026. RNs and clinical nurse leaders are in high demand in many healthcare facilities. As of May 2017, RNs earned an average annual wage of $73,550 with wages ranging from $48,690 to $104,100. Because of their extra training and managerial roles, CNLs have the potential to earn even higher wages according to Nurse Journal.

Registered nurses who desire leadership roles where they can play an important role in ensuring patients receive the best health care often find becoming a clinical nurse leader to be a perfect career choice. The high level that clinical nurse leaders function within a healthcare system makes them a valuable commodity in any medical facility providing patient care.