RN-MSN Programs as a Path to Becoming a Clinical Nurse Leader

Clinical nurse leaders (CNLs) are graduate-prepared registered nurses (RNs) who are responsible for improving the quality and safety outcomes for patients and patient populations. The clinical nurse leader role was developed in 2003 in response for the need to plan and coordinate complex patient care in the U.S.

CNLs are healthcare systems specialists who work alongside doctors, social workers, clinical nurse specialists, and pharmacists to integrate care for a specific population of patients.

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These advanced generalists, who possess advanced knowledge and education in general medicine, are called upon to ensure that the latest technologies and innovations are incorporated into patient care and that the medical team incorporates a comprehensive treatment plan to maximize patient outcomes.

What is a Clinical Nurse Leader? Clinical Nurse Leadership Jobs

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), in their 2013 white paper, Competencies and Curricular Expectations for Clinical Nurse Leader Education and Practice, defines a clinical nurse leader as a master’s educated nurse that is prepared to practice across the continuum of care in any healthcare setting and in a changing healthcare environment.

The AACN reveals that clinical nurse leaders are leaders in the healthcare delivery system who practice in a wide variety of settings. Clinical nurse leaders are not administration or management; instead, they assume accountability for patient-care outcomes through the design, implementation, and evaluation of patient-care processes and models of care delivery.

Clinical nurse leaders, as providers and managers of care at the point of care, focus their practice on:

  • Providing clinical leadership for patient-care practices and delivery for individuals, families, groups, and populations
  • Participating in the identification and collection of care outcomes
  • Evaluating and improving point-of-care outcomes, including synthesizing data as to achieve optimal outcomes
  • Anticipating risk for patients
  • Integrating care for patients
  • Overseeing team leadership, management, and collaboration with other members of the healthcare team
  • Utilizing information systems and technologies to improve healthcare outcomes
  • Leveraging human, environmental, and material resources and focusing on stewardship and advocacy for patients, communities, and the healthcare team

Salary statistics for clinical nurse leaders are difficult to assess, given that this nursing role is fairly new. However, recent statistics from a leading industry magazine reveal an annual salary range of between $59,000 and $108,000 for clinical nurse leaders.

How to Become a Clinical Nurse Leader: MSN Clinical Nurse Leader Programs

The path to becoming a clinical nurse leader involves earning a registered nurse (RN) license through the completion of a pre-licensure Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or nursing diploma program, followed by a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program. The AACN recognizes the MSN as the minimum educational requirement for becoming a clinical nurse leader.

Because the majority of nurses complete an ADN or nursing diploma program as their pre-licensure education, nurses interested in earning their MSN as to become a clinical nurse leader must first earn their BSN.

RN to MSN Clinical Nurse Leader Program Features

It therefore comes as no surprise that a large number of RN to MSN programs, a unique hybrid program designed to combine the curriculum and clinical requirements of both a BSN and MSN, are becoming increasingly popular. To date, the AACN reports that there are more than 166 RN to MSN programs in the U.S., with many more currently in development.

RN to MSN programs, which are designed specifically for the practicing RN, allow for the transfer of a number of credits from a student’s pre-licensure program as to avoid repeating unnecessary coursework required for the completion of a BSN. In fact, most students are able to transfer about 30 undergraduate credits from their pre-licensure educational program.

In addition to facilitating the completion of the BSN through the transfer of coursework, many programs also allot students additional credits based on their RN experience. Further, many RN to MSN programs are offered either partially or entirely online, thereby accommodating the busy schedules of today’s RNs.

RN to MSN Clinical Nurse Leader Curriculum Requirements

The AACN outlines the following being necessary components of an MSN in Clinical Nurse Leadership program:

  • Graduate nursing core: The graduate nursing core is defined as being the foundational curriculum essential for all students in a master’s degree program.
  • Direct care core: The direct care core is defined as being essential for providing direct patient care services at an advanced level.
  • Functional area content: The functional area content is defined as clinical and didactic learning experiences necessary for meeting specific CNL competencies and clinical expectations

The Clinical Nurse Leader MSN must include a component of direct care practice that involves graduate-level content/coursework in the following areas:

  • Physiology/pathophysiology
  • Health assessment
  • Pharmacology

In addition to required clinical/practice experiences, which are integrated throughout the MSN in clinical nurse leadership, a practice immersion experience is often required. An immersion experience allows students to practice in a chosen healthcare environment, where they have the opportunity to integrate the knowledge and skills acquired in their CNL education experience.

Clinical Nurse Leader Professional Certification

After graduating from a Clinical Nurse Leader MSN program, RNs are eligible to sit for the CNL Certification Examination through the Commission on Nurse Certification (CNC), an arm of the AACN. Students must take and pass the CNL Certification Examination to earn the CNL designation.

The CNL certification is optional, serving as a mark of excellence for practicing CNLs.

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