Guest Commentary

Make your voice heard

Now, more than ever, nurses must advocate for improved patient care

by Clinical Assistant Professor Erin Wyatt, MSN, RN

Earlier this year, a state senator in Washington created a lot of buzz when she said that nurses “probably play cards for a considerable amount of the day” when working their shifts. This statement was made during a discussion about a bill which would ensure that nurses receive uninterrupted meal breaks at work. Even a first-year nursing student knows there is no time for fun and games when nurses are caring for patients! It is frightening that an elected official would make such an outrageous statement.

Let’s think for a moment about how sobering it is that many individuals who have very little knowledge about healthcare are the ones making decisions that affect so many patients and the people devoted to caring for them. This highlights the utmost importance of civic engagement and political and legislative advocacy among nurses.

My challenge to all nurses and nursing students is to become involved in legislative and political advocacy. Never forget how important your role is, even when you’re not at the patient’s bedside.

Clinical Assistant Professor Erin Wyatt

For centuries, nurses have worked tirelessly to help bring lives into the world, heal the sick, comfort the dying, and save the lives of the critically ill. They conduct research to find ways to improve symptoms and enhance quality of life. Nurses are both caregivers and scientists whose reach has no boundaries and who care for people of all races, religions, gender identities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Nurses know the hardships their patients face, the challenges they overcome, and the unmet needs that can leave them devastated. This heightened awareness of the human condition gives nurses a certain credibility. In fact, nurses have been consistently voted the country’s most trusted profession for almost two decades. Their understanding – and their credibility – make them uniquely suited to get involved politically.

Becoming involved in legislative advocacy may seem intimidating, but it can be as simple as signing a petition or sending an email. Many nursing professional organizations – such as the American Nurses Association, Oncology Nursing Society, and the American Association of Critical Care Nurses – have their own advocacy groups that send out notifications when important healthcare bills are being introduced and will often provide electronic forms that make it easy for you to contact legislators. These groups also often have websites where you can search for the email addresses and telephone numbers of elected officials simply by entering a zip code. Nurses who wish to take on a more active role in political advocacy can learn more about how to affect healthcare policy by applying for the Nursing Organization Alliance’s Nurse in Washington Internship (NIWI) at https://tnoa.memberclicks.net/nurse-in-washington-internship

Personally, I find it very satisfying to participate in legislative advocacy. I feel that I can use my voice as a nurse to stand up for issues that affect the health of my community and my country. I have written letters to the editor of my local paper referencing my position as a nurse. I have made calls, left voicemails, sent emails, and written letters to my senators and representatives at both the state and federal level. I have attended several “Lobby Days” at the Indiana Statehouse regarding public health issues. I have canvassed for candidates that stand up for nurses and for healthcare. I have walked through crowds at fundraising events to speak to my U.S. senator face-to-face about healthcare legislation and made sure to introduce myself as a registered nurse. Last year, I put my name on the ballot and ran for an elected position and won!

My challenge to all nurses and nursing students is to become involved in legislative and political advocacy. Start by picking one issue that is important to you – for example, safe nurse-to-patient ratios or affordable prescription costs – and research it. Then contact the elected officials who vote on bills related to your important issue, tell them you are a nurse, and why the issue is important to you. If they end up supporting your cause, remember to follow up with a “thank you”! The more you do this, the easier it will become.

Then, one day, maybe you will be ready to run for office yourself and join the two registered nurses now serving in Congress or become the first nurse ever elected to the U.S. Senate! Last, but not least, make sure you are registered and vote in every election. Never forget how important your role is, even when you’re not at the patient’s bedside.

Erin Wyatt and members of "Students Demand Action" with IN State Representative Matt Pierce

The IU School of Nursing takes great pride in our history of advocating for the issues of importance to nurses, as evidenced by IUSON’s Dr. Sharron Crowder and her recent selection as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health Policy Fellow. Dr. Crowder is the first IU faculty member in 43 years and the first IUSON faculty member to be awarded this prestigious fellowship. Dr. Crowder will spend the next year in Washington, D.C. gaining invaluable hands-on experience – and an insider’s perspective – on the factors shaping healthcare policy at the federal level.

We thank IUSON Clinical Assistant Professor Erin Wyatt for her own story about the importance of nurse advocacy and the many ways nurses at every level can get involved in championing our profession.