Bringing the Caring Touch to Leadership Tables

May 9, 2014, 12:00 PM, Posted by

Sue Hassmiller

I flew to Florida years ago to be with my father at the end of his life. He lay in a hospital bed, at times conscious of the family members gathered at his side and other times unaware of his loved ones surrounding him. I watched a nurse I didn’t know lean over and kiss his forehead.

At another hospital bed years later, I watched a nurse comfort my daughter as she labored to bring my first granddaughter into the world. “You’ll be okay,” she whispered to my daughter, giving her a hug.

The end of life and the beginning of life, marked by a compassionate nurse keeping vigil and offering comfort.  In the midst of machines, a nurse provides a human touch and caring to patients and their family members.

The essence of caring is what first attracted me to the nursing profession. Now, more than 35 years later, the essence of caring still propels me in my work as the director of the Future of Nursing: Campaign for Action, a joint initiative of RWJF and AARP to transform health through nursing. One of the Campaign’s major focus areas is promoting nursing leadership. 

Nurses must be at leadership tables for many reasons: we spend the most time with patients and people and can speak from their perspectives; we’re on the front lines and have solutions for expanding access to care, improving quality, and containing costs; and we possess the competencies to improve care delivery. But we must also be at leadership tables because we care and advocate for patients and their families.

The truth of the matter, though, is that few nurses sit on boards and at leadership tables: nurses account for roughly 6 percent of hospital board positions. And that means that the patient’s perspective is often missing.

This is something that Donna Shalala learned well.  She listened to testimony on Capitol Hill at a session on health care delivery when health care reform was being debated in 2009. She was keyed into the importance of nursing leadership as chair of the Institute of Medicine Committee on the Future of Nursing.  Dr. Shalala noted that several physicians, an attorney, a pharmaceutical rep, and one or two policy-makers testified.  But no nurse.  And on a session on health care delivery and what was best for the patients in this country!

She said to me afterwards, “I couldn’t believe that no nurse testified—that needs to change.”

That is why we named the Institute of Medicine report, The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health. And that is why an entire chapter of the report is devoted to promoting nursing leadership.

The report calls upon many sectors to step up and hear this call, from front line nurses to chief nursing officers, to researchers, students, and nursing associations. 

We have to come together to understand the value nurses bring— and do what we can to get more nurses to be actively engaged in promoting leadership at all levels. We also need nurses to prepare for nurse leadership and to be the best leaders they can be.

As we work together to get more nurses involved in leadership and to train the next generation of nurses to take on roles with increasing responsibilities, we must always remember the primary reason more nurses are needed to serve in leadership positions—to bring to policy-making tables our essence of caring, and our desire to provide care to all people from their first breath to their last.


This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.