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What Is a Health Policy Nurse?

Nurses working in the health policy arena have an important role in developing and implementing the framework in which healthcare and public health systems operate.

In its glossary of terms for academic nursing, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) defines health policy as follows:

"Health policy refers to decisions, plans, and actions that are undertaken to achieve specific healthcare goals within a society. An explicit health policy can achieve several things: It defines a vision for the future which in turn helps to establish targets and points of reference for the short and medium term; it outlines priorities and the expected roles of different groups; and it builds consensus and informs people."

AACN's definition is taken from the former definition of "health policy" used by the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO now focuses on the more interactive concept of "Health System Governance." This concept emphasizes the importance of collaboration between all stakeholders (government bodies, health service providers and citizens) to ensure "strategic policy frameworks exist and are combined with effective oversight, coalition-building, regulation, attention to system-design and accountability."

Who Makes Health Policy?

In the United States, health policy decisions are made at both the federal level by Congress and by healthcare agencies. Some important health policies set by Congress include Medicare policy, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and HIPAA. Federal policies and funding also support healthcare research and education opportunities for healthcare workers, as evidenced by the White House's historic 2021 investment of $1.5 billion in diversifying the healthcare workforce and achieving health equity in underserved communities.

In addition, state legislatures make thousands of health policy decisions every year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. These decisions involve "improving access to appropriate care, determining who should be immunized, licensing health professionals and facilities, and supporting or rejecting initiatives to keep people healthy."

Supporting and advising the legislative processes are numerous health policy organizations. Nurses can bring a needed perspective to this process and help decision-makers develop and implement policies that truly benefit the public. Nurses can also take on leadership roles and become the decision-makers. In this way, nurses play an important role in the "whole-of-society" approach of WHO's work in Health System Governance, promoting "the empowerment of people and communities in oversight functions and the representation of citizens in health decision-making processes."

Roles and Jobs for Health Policy Nurses

A health policy nurse's responsibilities can include the following:

  • Analyzing and evaluating healthcare policies, laws and regulations
  • Advising policymakers, leaders and the public
  • Administering grants
  • Advocating for change as a lobbyist
  • Developing, proposing and implementing new healthcare policies
  • Preparing health policy briefs
  • Researching public healthcare issues

Organizations where nurses can fill these roles include the following:

  • Advocacy organizations, such as the Public Health Institute or the Trust for America's Health
  • Private, for-profit consulting firms like FTI Consulting's Center for Healthcare Economics and Policy
  • Foundations or organizations that do health policy research, such as the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), Urban Institute Health Policy Center or the RAND Corporation
  • Government agencies, such as the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • Health services research organizations like Public Citizen's Health Research Group
  • Legislative offices, at both the state and federal level — nurses with health policy experience may also choose to run for elective office
  • Nursing and other healthcare provider associations that recommend and advocate for policy
  • Public health agencies

The following are real-life examples of jobs filled by health policy nurses:

  • A regent in the California university system
  • A position in Rwanda with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), working in maternal child health and HIV prevention
  • Chief program integration officer for ambulatory care in a department of public health — a job that involves ensuring seamless transitions between city health groups, such as primary care, jail care and mental health
  • Nurse consultant/policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
  • Nurse policy advisor in a state Department of Health Services

How to Become a Health Policy Nurse

According to a Johnson & Johnson Nursing article, the path toward this career involves, at minimum, earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), passing the NCLEX-RN exam, earning licensure as a registered nurse (RN) and working in the field. Further, "it's highly recommended that people who want a career as a Health Policy Nurse earn their Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) … This added layer of academia provides an in-depth education of policy, research and healthcare-specific ethics, giving prospective hires a boost when applying for jobs."

A quality MSN program, such as the online MSN in Nursing Administration offered by The University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), gives nurses the necessary grounding to work in health policy, covering topics and skills like:

  • Nursing theory and research
  • Communication, leadership skills and management skills
  • Healthcare systems
  • Nursing and healthcare policy
  • Caring for populations
  • Global health
  • Healthcare economics and financial management in nursing
  • Strong writing and critical-thinking skills

Getting started in this new career can also involve completing health policy residencies, fellowships and leadership programs, such as those administered by the National Academy of Medicine. Various government offices, advocacy organizations, community groups and similar organizations may also offer residency programs.

With the right education, experience and a passion for making a difference, nurses can leverage their expertise to have significant impacts on the world through rewarding careers in health policy.

Learn more about The UTA online MSN in Nursing Administration program


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