What is a Clinical Nurse Leader?


In the face of some of the most critical issues plaguing our nation’s healthcare system, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN)–in conjunction with other organizations–proposed that a clinical nurse leader position be implemented into the nursing profession in 2007, making the CNL the first new role in nursing in 35 years. As a result, colleges and institutions, such as the University of San Francisco, have crafted programs, like the RN to MSN degree, designed to prepare students to meet the increasing need for advanced nursing services.

When the AACN developed the concept of the clinical nurse leader, the healthcare industry was in the midst of dealing with some very troubling statistics. Nurse.com states that reports from across the nation indicated that more and more facilities were reflecting poor patient outcomes. The clinical nurse leader role was devised to implement a working professional who would be able to view the bigger picture in an effort to bring forth improvements to a system in need of change.

The University of San Francisco defines a clinical nurse leader as someone who may be responsible for a wide range of tasks and responsibilities in the work environment. Typically, this individual is responsible for the healthcare outcomes of a specific group of patients within a unit or setting rather than providing daily care or dealing with managerial, fiscal, or human resource responsibilities. In order to facilitate this role, the clinical nurse leader must gather and utilize research-based information in an effort to design, implement, and evaluate patient outcomes.

Because of its relatively recent addition to the healthcare system, there are some misconceptions about the exact duties of the clinical nurse leader position. The Clinical Nurse Leader Association (CNLA) offers some key points in differentiating this job title from others that may at first appear similar to the uninitiated.

For instance, many might incorrectly assume that a CNL performs the same responsibilities as a clinical nurse specialist (CNS). The CNLA points out that a clinical nurse specialist is an advanced practice specialist with a macro-system focus, while the CNL is an advanced generalist with a micro-system focus. Both the CNS and CNL collaborate with one another at the point of care, as well as at other stages of the healthcare system.

The CNL role is also different than that of a case manager. While a case manager is tasked with coordinating a patient’s discharge plan as well as working with private insurers and Medicare/Medicaid issues, the clinical nurse leader works to coordinate the care plan for a patient with the health care team. Managing the team (which can include licensed nurses, technicians, and other health care professionals) is yet another duty that distinguishes the clinical nurse leader from other similar positions. Other components of this job can include patient and staff education, patient assessment, supervision of optimal protocols, and–in complicated patient cases–direct patient care.

As this relatively new addition to the nursing profession continues to evolve and improve conditions for patients and healthcare systems alike, the outlook for clinical nurse leaders is quite positive. EHow.com reports that the average salary for clinical nurse leaders working in the United States ranges from $55,000 to $60,000 per year–and those numbers are expected to grow as more and more hospitals come to recognize the CNL as a definitive and essential role in the healthcare system as a whole.

With such a crucial list of responsibilities attached to the title, it is important for professionals seeking to take on the role of clinical nurse leader to get the education needed that can lead to a successful career. As stated before, there are many universities that now offer CNL programs. The degree requires 400-500 clinical hours and also contains advanced practice courses in clinical assessment, pathophysiology, and pharmacology. Upon completion of the CNL degree, all students must also pass an examination. If you are interested in pursuing this line of work as your career,, take the time to learn more about important factors surrounding this exciting field, such as the salary, potential job opportunities, existing degree programs, and the role that accreditation plays in the entire process.


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, “White Paper on the Education and Role of the Clinical Nurse Leader,” Preface. http://www.aacn.nche.edu/publications/white-papers/ClinicalNurseLeader.pdf (accessed October 29, 2011).

Nurse.com, “New Clinical Nurse Leader Role Focuses on Big Picture.” http://news.nurse.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2007304140013 (accessed October 28, 2011)

University of San Francisco, “School of Nursing and Health Professions,” RN (BSN) to MSN Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL). http://www.usfca.edu/nursing/bsn-msn_cnl/ (accessed October 29, 2011)

EHow.com, “Average Salaries of CNLs,” Average Salary. http://www.ehow.com/info_7994076_average-salaries-cnls.html (accessed October 29, 2011).

Clinical Nurse Leader Association, “Frequently Asked Questions.” http://www.cnlassociation.org/faq.php (accessed October 29, 2011).



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