A clinical nurse leader (CNL) is a nursing professional who has a responsibility to design, implement, and evaluate patient care.  They do it by coordinating, delegating as well as supervising healthcare team at the clinical level.  

Creation of CNL position is as a result of a proposal by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. The association believed that it addresses numerous issues that face healthcare systems, such as patient care and quality of care. It is one of the new specialties compared to other nursing leadership positions but provides an opportunity for shaping nursing. 

Clinical nurse leaders must be well educated, but they are not part of advanced nursing practice.  It means that the clinical duties they can perform during direct patient care are still limited. A CNL is a clinician with advanced knowledge, and practice skills so play a unique role in clinical practice. The duties, although leaning more towards leadership, have a far-reaching impact within and without clinical setting. 

Duties and Responsibilities of a Clinical Nurse Leader 

Nursing work is full of surprises as things that someone did not anticipate are likely to occur every day.  Nonetheless, a clinical nurse leader has a day to day duties   that include: 

  • Collecting and evaluating treatment results  
  • Developing and implementing evidence-based solutions for improving patient care and outcomes  
  • Performing risk assessments and analyses for patient safety  
  • Address efficiency barriers and ensure cost-effective care
  • Follow up on relevant research to ensure that patients receive care based on the latest innovations  
  • Sharing knowledge   with the care team and often managing nursing staff directly  
  • Provide ongoing patient education and direct care  
  • Facilitating collaborated care  
  • Mentoring nursing staff
  • Developing and overseeing a friendly working environment 
  • Coordinating activities necessary for direct patient care

Clinical nurse leaders can work in various settings such as hospitals, acute care institutions, private clinics, and research institutions.  They might also work as nursing educators at medical colleges. CNLs who work as educators develop and implement an academic program to help nurses improve the quality of patient care. 

How to Become a Clinical Nurse Leader  

A registered nurse with interest to become a clinical nurse leader should have critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Both are essential in making strategic plans or changes to improve the quality of patient care and evaluating the results. Many nurse leadership roles are more of management, with less interaction with the patients.  Clinical nurse leadership is different, as it entails patient-facing roles. You should enjoy caring for patients and mentoring other nurses to become an excellent clinical nurse leader.  

Clinical nurse leader practices at an advanced clinician level and should have a master’s degree.  Graduate level education is a necessity because a CNL should bring clinical competence and knowledge of a higher level to the point of care. They should also serve as a resource for an entire nursing team, so a Master’s of Science in Nursing prepares a CNL for this role. 

Clinical Nurse Leader Educational Prerequisites  

The requirements to join an MSN program and specialize in CNL vary between schools.   Still, many nursing schools are offering various program options, including traditional classroom and online programs. The courses have a part-time or full-time study option. 

CNL certification has different pathways to meet the requirements, and all of them culminate to graduating from a master’s program and passing a CNL certification exam. 

 The most frequent pathway to becoming a licensed CNL is to earn a BSN degree and attain licensure to be a registered nurse (RN).   RNs can then enroll for an MSN program with CNL specialization. Graduates from CNL programs can sit for a certification exam. In the United States, it is Commission on Nurse Certification CNL exam that RNS should take and pass for authority to practice.  Nurses can also become CLN by these other two pathways. 

RNs with an ADN degree: The step to become a CNL starts by earning a BSN degree through an RN-BSN   program or joining an approved RN-MSN program to provide CNL training.   Training and instruction for masters level CNL include hours of supervises clinical experience (at least 400). Students must pass a certification exam to start practicing as a clinical nurse leader. 

RNs with an MSN: Nurses who already have earned a masters degree should complete a post-masters certificate program specializing in CNL approved by the licensing body. It includes 400 or more hours of supervised clinical experience.   At the end of the CNL certification, students sit a certification exam.  

The general courses in the curriculum of the CNL program include: 

  • Advanced Pharmacology  
  • Quality and safety in healthcare  
  • Advanced pathophysiology  
  • Business of healthcare
  • Research methods and biostatistics  
  • Advanced Health Assessment & Diagnostic Reasoning 
  • Advanced Epidemiology 
  • Evaluation of Health Outcomes 
  • Research Methods & Biostatistics

 Clinical Nurse Leader Career Outlook and Earnings  

CNL is one of the newest advanced nursing roles compared to others, but it has taken root.  There is much demand for certified CNLs as they contribute to earning patient safety and outcomes at an affordable cost. They also provide leadership at the institutions they serve. 

Clinical nurse leaders earn a median salary of $$89,000, which is higher than the annual average earning of 64,700 for other nurses.   Those with a higher level of training and experience earn higher wages in most of the locations. The top earner can earn up to $95,000 a year.  

A review of CNL career by the Bureau of Labor Statistics concludes that will be one of the highest in advanced practice nursing profession. 

It anticipates that employment opportunities will increase by 26%. The demand will stay high for many years since the population is getting older and requires more health care. 

Clinical nurse leaders have the responsibility to oversee care for a particular set of patients. They also manage an entire medical team involved in the healthcare of those patients. They include doctors, pharmacists, clinical nurse specialists, and nurse practitioners they also work with social workers.  

A CNL should be someone with proper management, interpersonal, and communication skills to work in harmony with everyone. An ability to learn and incorporate the latest technology into treatment plans is also essential in providing patients with the best care possible.

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