The Innovative Clinical Nurse Leader Programs

Clinical nurse leader programs are pioneering and innovative nursing education programs that prepare nurses for the role of clinical nurse leader (CNL). CNL programs were developed by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) in association with nursing education and practice stakeholders. The impetus in creating these programs came from the need to improve the quality of patient care delivery as well as to enhance professional nursing.

The CNL is a relatively new nursing role with a main focus on achieving positive patient outcomes. This is done through effective planning and execution of care plans as well as the evaluation of interventions at every stage of patient care. CNL’s often employ evidence-based findings to suggest improvements in patient care delivery. Other related functions include patient advocacy and risk assessment.

CNL’s may or may not be nurse managers or facility administrators. Their role can be more accurately described as coordinators of care. They communicate with the whole healthcare team including physicians, nurses, and technicians in order to identify gaps in patient care and recommend solutions. Clinical nurse leaders are also trained to be advanced generalists and are not meant to compete or supplant advanced practice nurses such as nurse practitioners (NPs), certified nurse specialists (CNS) or certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNA).

CNL programs are not also not designed primarily to create expert bedside nurses, although CNL’s can readily address complex nursing situations. They were conceived to train nurses to have the critical thinking and decision-making skills needed to achieve better patient outcomes. The perspective of CNL’s is wider than those of regular nurses. They make sense of the relationships between seemingly disjointed aspects of patient care. In other words, CNL’s see the bigger picture of things in the practice area.

Clinical nurse leader programs are being offered by just a few colleges and universities in the United States because the CNL role is still in its infancy. The CNL is offered as a track in a Masters of Science in Nursing (MSN) program. After completing the MSN, graduates need to pass the CNL certification exam administered by the AACN.

Since the CNL role is fairly new, most graduates and certified CNL’s are younger than other nurses with a specialty such as nurse practitioners (NP) or clinical nurse specialists (CNS) who are often much more senior and tenured than CNL’s. This is one reason why CNL’s are paid lower than these senior nurses. The range of salaries of CNL’s is between $55,000 to $60,000. Because of the support by the AACN, nursing schools, and a growing number of practice settings, the job and career prospects for this growing nursing role are excellent.

The changing health care environment and specialization of disciplines makes patient care delivery more complex. This complexity demands better coordination among health care team members for them to be consistently find ways to achieve patient outcomes. This coordination, leadership and focus can be provided by nurses who have completed clinical nurse leader programs.

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