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What is a Clinical Nurse Leader?

The Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL) advanced generalist role was developed in the United States by the American Association of the Colleges of Nursing (AACN) in order to prepare nurses to lead efforts in improving patient care in an ever changing healthcare system. The CNL practices at the microsystems level and focuses on improving patient care and patient outcomes through evidence based practice in a variety of practice settings, rather than focusing on administration or management.

Educating the CNL requires a master’s level curriculum based on the AACN’s Essentials of Master’s Education in Nursing that encompasses graduate nursing core, direct care core, and content specific to the CNL role. Clinical Nurse Leader education prepares the nurse for clinical leadership in specific patient populations, participate in improving patient care outcomes, assess patient risk and empower the CNL to effect change. 

The CNL designation is granted to those nurses who have graduated from a CNL centered master’s program and successfully pass the CNL certification examination. The CNL exam is a three-hour, computer based evaluation of the CNL role with an exam content outline available at:  The exam is offered four times throughout the year.

Clinical Nurse Leaders are well prepared to serve in a variety of health care settings, including hospitals, clinics, home care, rehabilitation centers, private practice, hospices and especially, Veterans Affairs Medical Centers. 

CNLs are responsible for coordinating and evaluating anything that impacts patient care and patient safety. They delegate and supervise the delivery of healthcare by a cross-functional team of health care professionals, which can consist of physicians, nurses, pharmacists and other professionals. In leading fellow clinicians, CNLs aim to deliver safer, more economical and higher quality care to their patients. Similarly, CNLs also seek to positively impact the patient satisfaction of their entire health care delivery team.

Core Competencies
In order to facilitate the delivery of optimal care, CNLs must possess a number of important skills. Among these are:

  • Critical thinking: CNLs must be able to think creatively to solve problems by synthesizing knowledge, experience and current research in order to develop the best plan of care.
  • Communication: CNLs must employ superior written, verbal and interpersonal communication to effectively educate and evaluate at each phase of the ongoing healthcare delivery process.
  • Assessment: CNLs must utilize their experience and education to assess risk to a patient due to genetic, physical and social factors, among others.
  • Resource Management: CNLs must be able to effectively supervise human capital and manage technology and material resources.
  • Risk Reduction: CNLs must be able to recognize risks to patients and implement strategies that will promote health and disease prevention both during and after treatment.
  • Disease Management: CNLs must work to maximize functionality and quality of life for patients suffering from chronic illness or disease.
  • Health Care Technology: CNLs must demonstrate an understanding of health care technology in order to effectively educate, evaluate and document patient care outcomes.

Clinical Nurse Leaders demonstrate a commitment to ethical behavior at all times. In their interactions with patients, colleagues and the public, CNLs will exhibit the following professional values:  

  • Altruism
  • Accountability
  • Human Dignity
  • Integrity
  • Social Justice

At Saint Xavier University, a premium is placed on similar values and personal development, making it an ideal setting to produce first-rate Clinical Nurse Leaders.
Strengthen your knowledge, broaden your impact, and take the first step in becoming a recognized leader with the online MSN in Clinical Nurse Leadership. Call 866-319-8966 or request more information.