In Colorado, a Helping Hand for Emerging Nurse Leaders

Colorado Action Coalition promotes nurse leadership, advanced nurse education, and fewer restrictions on nursing practice.

    • June 10, 2013

Sue Birch, MBA, RN, a nurse leader and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Executive Nurse Fellows program alumna (2002-2005), heads up the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing. When she hears about a leadership position in the state that could be filled by a nurse, Birch calls the Colorado Action Coalition and asks for names.

Karren Kowalski, PhD, RN, FAAN, co-lead of the Action Coalition and president and CEO of the Colorado Center for Nursing Excellence, makes sure that Birch gets those names, each and every time she asks.

As a result, three emerging nurse leaders have been nominated for state board or commission posts. The Colorado Action Coalition (a group of nurses and nurse champions working to transform nursing to improve health and health care in the state) supported them, as well as the appointments of 11 other nurses to public boards.

Colorado is blessed with a number of nurse leaders already in place who are boosting the work of the state’s Action Coalition, Kowalski says. They include nurses like Mary Blegen, PhD, RN, FAAN, an expert in nurse staffing and patient safety; Colleen Goode, PhD, RN, FAAN, a professor of nursing at the University of Colorado-Denver; and Jean Watson, PhD, RN, FAAN, past president of the National League for Nursing and distinguished professor and dean emerita at the University of Colorado-Denver.

“We have many very prominent nursing leaders in Colorado, and they do influence how people think about things,” Kowalski says.

Co-led by the Colorado Center for Nursing Excellence and the Colorado Hospital Association, the Colorado Action Coalition was officially recognized in 2011. Action Coalitions are the driving force behind the Future of Nursing: Campaign for Action, a national effort backed by RWJF and AARP that is advancing recommendations from a report on the future of nursing by the Institute of Medicine (IOM). Among those recommendations is getting more nurses into positions of leadership.

Substantial Funding

In addition to strong connections with powerful nurses, the Colorado Action Coalition has another ace up its sleeve: substantial funding to support its efforts to advance nurse education. In 2012, it received $20,000 from the Colorado Nursing Foundation and $47,500 from the Kaiser Permanente Community Foundation of Colorado. This March, Colorado was one of 20 states to receive a two-year $150,000 matching grant from RWJF to bolster its work to implement the IOM nursing report’s recommendations. Read more about the grant here.

The Colorado Action Coalition is using the RWJF State Implementation Program (SIP) grant to work with Colorado nursing leaders to help more nurses earn baccalaureate degrees, a key goal of the IOM report. It has hired a facilitator to move the project forward and has held three meetings with interested stakeholders. It is planning a fourth meeting on June 17.

The need for more highly educated nurses is urgent in Colorado, Kowalski says. A number of the state’s hospitals already require nurses to be prepared at the baccalaureate level, and others are indicating that they will follow suit. The biggest challenge, she says, is in rural areas, where four-year nursing programs are difficult to access.

Another key priority for the Action Coalition is enabling nurses to practice to the full extent of their expertise and training. Colorado nurses won a major victory last year, when the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that state law permits certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs) to deliver anesthesia in the state’s rural areas without physician supervision.

The battle began in 2010, when then-Gov. Bill Ritter, Jr. opted out of a federal rule that requires physician supervision of CRNAs. Groups of physicians and anesthesiologists filed suit, lost, and appealed. The case is now pending in the Colorado Supreme Court.

“Significant work has been done to date,” Kowalski said. “We’re now moving on to the next stages in our efforts.”