(BPT) - Registered nurses (RNs) are the largest segment of the nation's health care workforce. Their direct access to patients and their families has long influenced health care delivery and outcomes. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the profession among the fastest-growing in the U.S, yet nurses remain underrepresented on the leadership bodies that shape their industry. Significant opportunity exists for nurses to expand their sphere of influence from the bedside to the boardroom.
Nurses are key members of the American health care system, but they are historically left out of policy-making decisions. Only 6 percent of board members were nurses, according to a survey of 1,000 hospital boards published in the Journal of Healthcare Management. Higher education is helping to fix this disparity through degree program options that empower nurses to apply knowledge of organizational leadership to achieve change.
The Institute of Medicine says pursuing advanced levels of education is one essential way for nurses to further their careers and prepare for leadership roles, and today's nurses have more options than ever. The number of programs available to transition RNs to the master's degree level has doubled over the past 15 years, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).
Online programs give nurses the flexibility to continue their education without taking a break from their careers. Chamberlain College of Nursing, for example, offers a variety of Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) specialty tracks to prepare nurses for specialty careers in informatics, patient or nurse education, or health care policy.
'The opportunities are endless for nurses with a master's degree to further their careers - from administrative and management positions to research and technology,' says Dr. Robin Kirschner, dean of MSN Specialty Tracks at Chamberlain.
Chamberlain's MSN Executive specialty track pairs interpersonal skills development with curriculum on the complex health care system, including staffing, budgets, organizational change and factors that influence health care policy. This academic foundation can help nurses assume roles as nurse executive, director of nursing, chief nursing officer or health care administrator.
MSN program graduates can continue their educational and professional advancement by pursuing additional nursing degrees, such as a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. Chamberlain graduates can earn their MBA faster by applying qualifying credits to the program at DeVry University's Keller Graduate School of Management.
Health care leaders agree nurses with advanced degrees possess a wider knowledge base of patient care, quality standards, business acumen and other skills that result in improved patient outcomes. Accordingly, many large health care organizations now require nurses to have a master's degree in a nursing specialty or nursing administration to move into leadership roles, as these functions entail staffing, planning and budgeting responsibilities.
'Nurses have the power to transform health care,' Dr. Kirschner says. 'With advanced education to support them, they can join their multi-disciplinary counterparts on leadership boards in greater numbers to affect positive change through policy.'