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What Does a CNL Nurse Do?

A Clinical Nurse Leader, or CNL, is one of nursing’s emerging roles. Developed in 2003 as a response to the Institute of Medicine’s quality and safety reports, it has become a rapidly growing and important nursing role. Today, medical facilities across the country incorporate CNLs in their departments.

Research has indicated that the addition of the CNL results in higher patient and physician satisfaction, better patient outcomes, lower nurse turnover, and higher quality of care.1 As a result, Clinical Nurse Leaders have quickly become valued and respected members of the medical community. The role a CNL plays in healthcare is unique, and in order to recognize how it differs from other nursing roles, it is important to understand what CNLs actually do.

Coordinating patient care

One of the biggest health care challenges is coordinating interdisciplinary care and ensuring communication among the various members of a patient’s team. CNLs fill that gap. They get to know each of their patients’ needs, then help coordinate nurses to ensure that all patients get the care they need, while making care more efficient.2

CNLs consistently communicate these plans, making one of the most important aspects of their work communication. Instead of seeing individual patients, the CNL steps back, evaluates and communicates the needs of their patients. This is particularly important as patients move to different departments and facilities, because gaps in care can occur during these moves.

CNLs also use population-based medicine concepts to anticipate problems and risks for their patients, and then work to prevent them. This might mean making simple decisions like changing catheter orders to decrease infections, or even recognizing changes in patients that others might have missed.3

Improving unit effectiveness

In addition to this lateral integration, the CNL stays abreast of current research to help improve the quality of their unit.4 They apply knowledge of safety, statistics, and health care quality to their individual units to ensure standards are consistently being met.5 To this end, they also collect and evaluate patient outcomes to effectively diagnose any issues within their units, helping improve any weak areas of care.

For example, some CNLs have dramatically reduced infections by observing handwashing habits within their units, as well as staff communication about handwashing.6 By noticing safety lapses among staff, or trends of risks among patients, the CNL  can effectively prevent problems before they arise.

CNLs are very involved in patient care, specifically taking a leadership role and filling gaps within the clinical arena. They increase accountability, anticipate risks, and increase communication within and outside of their units.7 This leads to both higher staff satisfaction and improved patient outcomes, making this new field a rapidly growing one.

If you are interested in becoming a Clinical Nurse Leader, you can read more about Saint Xavier University’s online Master of Science in Nursing in Clinical Leadership.