How Can Nurses Influence Public Health Policy?

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Nurse navigating tablet with icons showing on screenThe pandemic exposed numerous challenges in public health, from the lack of access to quality medical care in rural communities to the ease with which health misinformation can be disseminated. At the same time, it’s given nurse leaders a unique opportunity to reshape healthcare’s future.

By effectively assessing issues regarding health systems, regulatory practices, equitable access to care, health information technology and care coordination, nurse leaders with an advanced degree such as a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) can make a profound impact on public health policy.

This will mean focusing on the serious public health issues that are destined to persist in a post-pandemic environment. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 31.9% of the U.S. adult population was obese in 2020, and that more than 16 million Americans are living with a disease linked to smoking. Additionally, it is projected that one in every five Americans will be age 65 or older by 2030. This demographic shift is anticipated to produce an uptick in chronic conditions that could potentially cause systematic strain on the country’s healthcare system if not handled proactively.

Those in nurse leadership roles can use their knowledge and skills to advocate for changes to face these issues, and ensure that changes are made smoothly and efficiently. So, how can nurses influence public health policy?

Nursing Influence on Health Care Policy

There are a number of ways that nurse leaders can contribute to impactful change in public health policy. Because of their real-world clinical experience, nurses are key to identifying areas that need attention, reforming ineffective policies and ensuring that good policies are enforced

Health System Reform

The debate on reforms to deliver affordable, equitable, high-quality care is ongoing. Considerations include everything from improving the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to building a system that more efficiently handles coverage options such as Medicare and employer-based health coverage.

When certain provisions of the ACA recently came before the Supreme Court, nurses and other health professionals worked to defend it. In May 2020, the American Public Health Association (APHA) was joined by the Catholic Health Association of the United States and leading voices from various industries in urging the Supreme Court to uphold the entirety of the ACA in the face of repeal efforts.

When the Supreme Court upheld the ACA in June of 2021, APHA Executive Director George Benjamin, MD called the ruling “a big win for the many millions of people who rely on the ACA for access to medical and preventive services and who depend on its landmark patient protections.”

A primary goal of health system reform is to bring equity to healthcare across racial, age and socioeconomic demographics. This requires reform-minded nurse leaders to identify the different needs of patient populations and formulate ways to address them. This may mean developing reform strategies that focus on proactive care, such as optimizing preventive services.

It is important for nurse leaders to recognize the challenges to health system reform and understand the opinions that are driving the debate in order to effectively advocate for changes that recognize the goals of different stakeholders.

Health Information Technology

Technical innovations, such as electronic health records (EHRs), demonstrated the importance of a quality IT strategy in realizing health system reform. Furthermore, the pandemic drastically increased reliance on digital health technologies (e.g., telehealth).

A late 2021 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) revealed that Medicare telehealth visits jumped from around 840,000 in 2019 to 52.7 million in 2020 — a 63-fold increase. As facilities and patients alike realize the value of these tech-driven innovations, it will become increasingly important to integrate them into care delivery

The American Nurses Association (ANA), which represents more than 4.2 million registered nurses,  works to promote health IT initiatives in various ways. It is advocating for EHRs as fundamental to patient safety, nominating nurse leaders to government health IT committees, joining health IT alliances such as the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society and the Alliance for Nursing Informatics, and developing educational products for e-health campaigns.

COVID-19 Advocacy

Nurses have faced serious hardship as they treat COVID-19 patients, react to rapidly spreading variants and work to increase vaccination rates. Based on their experiences in hospitals and clinics, they are now advocating for policy changes to improve the response to COVID-19 and prepare for the next inevitable pandemic.

In 2020, the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN), which represents more than 500,000 nurses, presented recommendations to the U.S. Senate regarding the stockpiling of personal protective equipment for future health emergencies. In 2021, the ANA presented testimony to the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis regarding the importance of equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

The American Organization for Nursing Leadership (AONL) is calling on the U.S. Department of Health and Humans Services (HHS) to establish a grant program to allow healthcare employers to treat the mental health of their workers who are on the front lines of treating COVID-19 patients.

Nurses are using their collective voice to guide policy on how we weather the COVID-19 pandemic, and to prepare for other global health emergencies.

Be a Positive Influence

Healthcare is constantly evolving, offering nurse leaders the opportunity to effect change that benefits patients and serves society more equitably. Pursuing an advanced degree can mean making a palpable impact in a critical field.

Duquesne University’s online Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program can help guide you on this important path. Its curriculum is designed to cultivate the knowledge and skills to be an effective nurse leader, allowing you to make a difference in the lives of others.

Learn how Duquesne University can help guide your professional journey.

Recommended Readings

DNP-Educated Nurses Addressing Staffing Issues

Ethical Principles in Nursing: Tips for Nurse Leaders in Promoting Ethical Practice

Transparency in Nursing Leadership and Healthcare


American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, Comments from the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses Prepared for the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions

on ‘Preparing for the Next Pandemic’

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, State Practice Environment

American Medical Association, Care Coordination and the Essential Role of Nurses

American Medical Association, Health IT

American Medical Association, “Health Reform: How to Improve U.S. Health Care in 2020 and Beyond”

American Nurses Association, Health Policy

American Nurses Association, Health System Transformation

American Nurses Association, February 19, 2021 Statement from ANA President Grant to the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis

American Organization for Nursing Leadership, Nursing Priorities During COVID-19 American Public Health Association, COVID-19

American Public Health Association, Key Health Care Voices Weigh in Ahead of Supreme Court Arguments in ACA Repeal Lawsuit

Association of American Medical Colleges, “AAMC Report Reinforces Mounting Physician Shortage”

Business Insider, “America’s Demographics & Aging Population Statistics”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Category: Obesity/Weight Status

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “The Role of Public Health in COVID-19 Emergency Response Efforts From a Rural Health Perspective”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Smoking & Tobacco Use

Public Health Newswire, “APHA, Public Health Supporters Laud Supreme Court Decision on ACA”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health IT

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, New HHS Study Shows 63-Fold Increase in Medicare Telehealth Utilization During the Pandemic