When healthcare executives think about the growing demand for high-quality care during a time of economic uncertainty, most of them likely worry about how to build a strong talent pipeline for the future. But the demand for effective nursing leadership is equally as pressing. We don’t have enough people adequately trained to lead the industry’s nursing staff, and the ones we do have are facing unprecedented pressures.
To address this, we must fundamentally change the way we intentionally invest in nurse leaders. We must also recognize the need to continue preparing them throughout their careers for a dynamic, even chaotic, environment. While the challenges are numerous, I believe three are the most critical to overcome:
Adapting to new technologies
Data—and new ways to collect and use them—will increasingly shape the type of care we deliver and how we provide it. Artificial intelligence is already improving patient flow at some health systems. AI software can potentially enhance every area of interaction between nurses and patients, but only if nurses see the technology as a tool and not a threat. In addition to staying aware of the increasing amount of regulation around new AI applications, nurse leaders need to remain extra vigilant when it comes to ethical patient data usage and understand the specific rules when implementing AI-driven tools. Continuous-monitoring devices also compile a level of detail that can transform patient care, but we must understand how to use the flood of information. Population analytics can help us intervene to prevent crises and keep our patients healthy, if we know what the numbers mean.
Multiple generations are serving in the nursing workforce, with varying degrees of comfort with technology. Leveraging tech-savvy nurses’ skills to expand their opportunities could make the difference between retaining them and losing them. At the same time, we need to help all nurses feel comfortable in the new tech-driven environment. One approach is through ongoing familiarization programs and casual “lunch and learns” to provide nurses opportunities to learn new technologies in a comfortable setting.
Understanding the changing healthcare business
Nurse executives are a key part of the leadership team at a time when health systems are facing multiple challenges: staffing shortages, tight operating margins and competition from private equity firms and other nontraditional players. Many are trying to negotiate the slow shift from fee-for-service to value-based reimbursement, with the accompanying implications for the bottom line. Nurse leaders need to understand these business imperatives and how their staff affect them—and how they are affected by them. They need to be able to speak the language of their chief financial officers and to teach them the languages of nursing and patient care in turn.
Mutual understanding is a survival issue—but it is one that can be easily addressed through training, shadowing and mentoring. When nurses move to executive roles and deal with other leaders, they will need to be able to speak in business terms. Health systems must develop deliberate education and training opportunities for nurses moving into such roles.
Focusing on social determinants of health
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted our nation’s severe health disparities and the pivotal effects that social and environmental factors have on determining how long people live, how healthy they are and how they experience the healthcare system. Providers can never go back to simply seeing a patient as a “case” in isolation from those factors. Nurses are particularly well suited to take a leading role during this fundamental shift. As health systems rethink how to address social issues in their patient populations, nurse leaders must stay on top of the changing requirements for their teams and be prepared to innovate.
How can we prepare nursing leadership for these needs? Formal training through continuing education is an obvious place to begin. Budgeting the time and money for ongoing development should be as automatic for these essential management skills as it is for clinical training. At the next level, support for nurse leaders to earn advanced degrees in key functional areas such as health administration, public health, business or informatics can pay for itself many times over.
Equally important is mentoring. Mentorship provides informal support and the opportunity for nurses to develop relationships with peers and role models, ultimately cultivating stronger and more confident nurse leaders. Mentoring also creates awareness of—and interest in—leadership roles. Connecting with colleagues in such positions provides a more focused path toward career development and growth.
It is also vital to advocate for intentional networking pathways so current and aspiring nurse leaders can develop their own “personal cabinet” of trusted advisers. My own includes not just nurses, but physicians, academic experts and even some longtime colleagues who are now outside the healthcare industry. They greatly enrich my perspective and help me make better decisions based on diverse viewpoints.
Continuous learning is the best path to creating a culture of innovation and a willingness to try new things. The entire healthcare system has to think differently about how it provides services. Because nurses are on the front lines of care, they’re the ones best equipped to reimagine it. We need to give them the time and the tools they need to lead us into the future. ν