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Nurses Are Key to Meeting America’s Health Care Needs

Last month I moderated a fascinating panel discussion on health care that included business leaders, policymakers, insurers and health care experts. Each panelist brought a different perspective to the conversation, but an important point of agreement was clear: Nurses are key to meeting America’s growing health care needs.

“This is a truly diverse, experienced and committed set of leaders that have a lot of important things to do,” said Mark McClellan, senior fellow and director of the Health Care Innovation and Value Initiative at the Brookings Institution, in his keynote speech. “They are the ones who are shaping our health care system, and to have all of them coming together here for this event tells you just how important the future of nursing is for the future of our health care system.”

Why? Because nurses are critical to increasing access to health care, delivering care better, and reducing costs for both consumers and businesses that help pay for their employee health care, McClellan said. For example, nurses play a key role in helping to manage the transition of patients from hospitals to home, helping to prevent readmissions and getting better outcomes at less cost. Thousands of nurse practitioners nationwide staff a growing number of retail clinics, which give consumers increased access to primary care at a lower cost than most doctors’ offices. And each day nurses are at the front lines using new technologies that are helping to provide consumers with more convenient, personalized and customized health care.

The idea of tapping nurses to meet America’s health care demands is not new. In fact, it was four years ago this month that the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released its groundbreaking report on the future of nursing. The report called for the transformation of the nursing profession in order to meet our nation’s need for patient-centered, high-quality, affordable health care, and it laid out a blueprint for how health care could be successfully transformed by leveraging the skill and power of nurses.

While the IOM releases many reports each year, this one triggered a groundswell across the nation, and its impact continues to be felt. To ensure that the recommendations didn’t just sit on a shelf, AARP, the nation’s largest consumer organization, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest health care philanthropy, together launched the Future of Nursing: Campaign for Action, a national campaign to transform health and health care through nursing.

Over the past four years, I’ve watched with pride as the campaign and its 51-state Action Coalitions have grown from the seed of an idea into a robust, flourishing nationwide network for change. I’m proud of the many successes we’ve achieved and the progress that’s been made. But I also believe that right now this work is at a critical juncture, a point that was echoed by the panelists at our event on Sept. 17.

We need to move the national conversation about the value of nurses beyond health care experts and policymakers to include consumers and businesses. The very future of our health care system is at stake, and we need their voices to join ours in this effort. In particular, gaining the support of consumers and businesses is key as AARP and other organizations work to modernize state scope-of-practice laws that prevent nurses from doing everything they were trained to do, a key recommendation of the IOM report.

Elaine Ryan, vice president of State Advocacy and Strategy Integration (SASI) in AARP’s Government Affairs group, has experienced firsthand, as a family caregiver to her parents for 15 years, the negative impact these outdated barriers have. It was Nurse Sue who cared for Elaine’s mother each week. “I saw up close that nurses are lifesavers,” Ryan shared on the panel. However, Nurse Sue was not allowed to update her mother’s prescriptions, forcing her wheelchair-using mom to make daylong trips to the doctor’s office for an appointment that would last just a few minutes.

“It’s time to give nurses more authority to heal,” Ryan said. By doing so, it can help to alleviate the burden our nation’s 42 million family caregivers experience in caring for their loved ones. “To all of those family caregivers out there, raise your voices,” she said. “These rules don’t have to be the way they are.”

Businesses should play a key role in this conversation, noted panelist Jack Rowe, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the former CEO of Aetna, as well as the president and CEO of Mount Sinai NY Health.

“The companies in the United States that care a lot about health care are not just the health care companies,” he said. “It is every company, because every company’s largest or most rapidly growing expense is their health care costs for their beneficiaries.” The impact that corporate leaders can have on health care organizations “can’t be overestimated,” he said.

As we look ahead to 2015 and the fifth anniversary of the IOM report, I am proud of all that’s been accomplished and eager to continue to broaden the national dialogue about the value of nurses to include corporate leaders, family caregivers and, most importantly, consumers. Ultimately, we all will benefit when we give nurses more authority to heal.

Susan Reinhard, RN, PhD, FAAN, is a senior vice president at AARP, directing its Public Policy Institute, the focal point for AARP's public policy research and analysis. She also serves as the chief strategist for the Center to Champion Nursing in America, a resource center to ensure the nation has the nurses it needs.

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