The Clinical Nurse Leader

Clinical nurse leaders are advanced generalists. They are adept at providing direct patient care and also coordinating care in situations where healthcare experts must pool their knowledge. Clinical nurse leaders, or CNLs, typically have a cohort of patients and a particular unit that they are responsible for. They communicate with a variety of professionals in order to provide quality care and do so in a way that uses hospital resources efficiently.

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CNLs use evidence-based practices to evaluate risks and determine effective practice. They may educate patients and health professionals alike. Possible job titles include Outcomes Manager or Patient Care Coordinator. Job duties are often broader than those of a case manager employed in a hospital setting. The clinical nurse leader role is sometimes described as lateral coordination or horizontal leadership. While a clinical nurse leader may take on some supervisory duties, this isn’t the main function.

Clinical nurse leaders work for large hospitals and medical centers, both public and private. The Department of Veterans Affairs uses them to coordinate care for veterans. In fact, the VA is self-described as being at the forefront of the movement.

Clinical Nurse Leader Education

Clinical nurse leaders hold master’s degrees. There are multiple paths to degree completion. Some programs are designed for registered nurses who have associate’s or bachelor’s degrees. RNs sometimes enter these programs at the request of employers; they are in the process of transitioning to higher level positions. Typical classwork includes advanced health assessment, biostatistics, nursing research, and pharmacology. Nurses also learn advanced communication and leadership. A program typically includes close to 500 hours of clinical practice in the CNL role.

Unlike nurse practitioners and other advanced practice nurses, clinical nurse leaders do not specialize. In other words, their education isn’t focused on developing advanced clinical competencies that are applicable to a particular population. CNLs do, however, study population-based care. A clinical nurse leader has breadth to her education and is at adept at pointing people toward resources.

Those who have bachelor’s degrees in other fields may enroll in direct entry clinical nurse leader programs. They take classes required for initial licensure and classes relevant to the clinical nurse leader role. They can expect to take entry level RN positions after graduation, but to advance more rapidly than those with lower degrees.

Clinical Nurse Leader Licensing and Certification

Clinical nurse leaders are registered nurses. Like all RNs, they must be licensed by their state or jurisdiction. They must complete an approved or accredited program and then take the NCLEX-RN examination. Some nurses have a multistate license.

No additional licensing is necessary to work as a Clinical Nurse Leader. Voluntary certification is available through the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. This credential indicates advanced knowledge and competence relevant to the CNL role. Though voluntary from a legal standpoint, it is required by some employers. An exam is required for initial certification. 50 contact hours are required for recertification.

The Clinical Nurse Leader Association is an additional professional resource.

Clinical Nurse Leader Salary and Career Outlook

The BLS reports a mean salary of $67,720 a year or $32.56 an hour for registered nurses. Experience is a significant factor in determining earnings. Once other factors are accounted for, nurses with higher education and specialized training tend to earn more. Many hospitals have career ladders in place. Government agencies also have a formalized program by which they reward both experience and qualifications. A clinical nurse, however, will generally not earn as much as a nurse practitioner, who has advanced clinical competencies in a particular nursing specialty.

According to the BLS and state agencies, nurses are expected to be in high demand for years to come. Organizations like the Institute of Medicine are calling for higher levels of education for nurses. Nurses with higher degrees are often favored for entry level positions during difficult economic times.