What is a CNL?
The demand for nurses is on the rise. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the field to grow by 16% between 2014 and 2024, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. This growth is in large part due to a heightened demand for health care services brought on in part by an aging population that suffers from numerous chronic illnesses, such as dementia, diabetes, and arthritis.
Another reason for nursing’s growth is the rise in the number of insured individuals due to the Affordable Care Act, which gave millions of previously uninsured patients access to health care services. Finally, financial pressures on hospitals to discharge patients quickly may cause more people to be admitted to long-term care facilities or outpatient care centers, which likely will result in a higher demand for nursing home personnel.
To address this industry growth, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, in collaboration with field experts, developed a position known as a Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL). As the first new role created within the field in more than 35 years, the position is designed to better prepare nurses to thrive in a fast-paced industry and drastically improve the quality of patient care.
What does a CNL do?
CNLs work at the point of care to facilitate, oversee, and coordinate a multifaceted health care team in their own department and in collaboration with the health care organization as a whole. Earning a master’s or post-master’s degree from an accredited CNL program helps CNLs learn to take concrete steps to improve patient outcomes, effectively carry out a variety of nursing roles, and manage interdisciplinary teams.
They are the individuals who have the skills to change care plans when necessary. They also communicate, plan, and coordinate ongoing care with patients and an interprofessional team of health care workers.
CNL core responsibilities include performing comprehensive assessments of patients and caregivers upon initial contact, conducting ongoing assessments and modifications for care plans, educating patients’ loved ones about their condition and treatment plan, and ensuring all treatment options are cost-effective and essential.
They are responsible for working in collaboration with everyone in the health care environment, from physicians to social workers to pharmacists. Essentially, they are leaders within all aspects of the health care process. This role flexibility allows CNLs to make executive decisions that positively and directly impact patient care.
The fundamental principles that drive a CNL to succeed are good stewardship, patient advocacy, evidence-based practice, risk anticipation, patient-centered care, and team leadership. CNLs also are held accountable for the improvement of point-of-care outcomes, use of new technology to improve health care outcomes, and the lateral integration of patient care.
Process and requirements for earning a CNL degree
The increasing complexity of patient care needs and rushed pace of health care delivery creates a need for CNLs, who can improve the pathway between patient care and patient outcomes. To qualify as a registered CNL, students must complete an accredited master’s degree or post-master’s certificate and then pass the CNL certification exam. Many programs offer the exam as part of their coursework requirements.
Students can complete the majority of credible CNL programs within a two-year timeframe. A bachelor’s degree in nursing is not a requirement, though it is generally recommended. The most desirable candidates have completed coursework in human anatomy, microbiology, chemistry, and nutrition during their associate degree or undergraduate education.
Students pursuing a bachelor’s to master’s in nursing degree will likely take courses on topics ranging from financial resource management to pharmacology and pathophysiology. While most graduates enter the CNL field after completing the program, some pursue advanced degrees to become nurse educators, managers, directors, or recruiters. Overall, a CNL degree can represent either the end goal or serve as the foundation for further advancement for health care professionals.
What makes a CNL different from other nursing positions?
A CNL is a master’s-prepared advanced generalist who is directly involved in patient care and communicates with an interdisciplinary team of health care professionals. CNLs have a different skill set than clinical nurse specialists (CNSs). The CNL skill set focuses on improving patient care outcomes at the point of care, while CNSs complete their education in a specific area of practice.
Despite this distinction, the roles are complementary, and all offer unique expertise to any health care environment. For example, if a patient is not responding to a specific treatment plan or therapeutic offering, a CNL may consult with a nurse specialist, such as a CNS, who has experience in this area.
On a daily basis, CNLs function in a variety of roles. They might be responsible for identifying at-risk patients and assessing the effectiveness of their treatment plan one day, while meeting with department heads and dietary professionals on another. They will always integrate research-based strategies with clinical practices to achieve the best quality of care. From operating as a multidisciplinary collaborator to a unit-based clinical resource, this is the ideal position for health care professionals who prefer variety and high-pressure decision-making on the job.
To learn more about the benefits and requirements of obtaining a clinical nurse leader degree, consider pursuing the online MSN Clinical Nurse Leader program through the University of San Francisco. This program offers the rigor of an on-campus program with the flexibility desired by working professionals. Contact the University of San Francisco’s admissions office today to learn about our unique approach to CNL education.