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A Natural Transition for Nurses

Nurses see firsthand how policy impacts the day-to-day lives of the public.

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At first glance a nurse taking on the role of politician may not make sense, but it is, in fact, a natural transition.

At a time when healthcare is at the forefront of the national discussion, nurses have a unique perspective to share, whether at the local, state, or national level.

"It is a wonderful opportunity to set public policy," said Vermont State Rep. Kathleen Keenan (D-St. Albans), who has been in office since 1989, and a nurse since 1961. "My work as a nurse has brought me close to my constituents and opened my eyes to the issues impacting them the most."

Those who pursue a political career offer what others cannot: first-hand experience at the bedside and a comprehensive understanding of what is happening in healthcare.

Transferrable Skills

Strong communication skills, critical thinking, teamwork and an "up-for-anything" attitude give nurses an edge when entering public office.

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"I found that nurses can play an important role in public life," said Congresswoman Lois Capps (D-CA). "We are used to working as a team. We want to find allies, problem solve and get the work done."

"We like to roll up our sleeves, get involved and make it better, which translates well in office," she added.

Capps, who has represented her California district in Washington since 1998, did not grow up with political ambitions. Working closely with her husband during two campaigns Capps gained experience and an understanding of what it took to be in office.

Not long after he began his first term, Capp's husband passed away. Ahe took his place as a U.S. Representative, following a special election.

Before entering office, Capps was a public school nurse, who spent her time working with and witnessing the challenges of local families, especially when it came to healthcare access.

"As a school nurse we were always trying to find resources for families who didn't have healthcare coverage," she stressed. "My experience taught me that if you don't have access to healthcare you are really struggling. So many did not and do not, which is strong motivation for me to get involved."

"We are with people during very important times in their life," she added. "You see people dealing with life-altering decisions; you see their strengths and weaknesses. So, you are in a good position to understand and represent the struggles people go through."

Nursing and politics share a common thread, according to Keenan. "We learn to deal with human beings as nurses and we are in a position where we help them develop their strengths," she said. "And I think it is the same thing when you are working in the legislature. I know as a committee chair I would develop my committee member's strengths, so they could grow and take charge."

"Whether it is nursing or politics, it is simply a matter of dealing with people," she added.

A New Role

Making the move from caregiver to policymaker can be daunting, but nurses who decide to do so, will find themselves well prepared to face the challenge.

Many were skeptical of Capps' qualifications when she first entered office, but she never wavered. If anything, the doubts of others made her work that much harder.

"If you tell any nurse they can't do something they are likely to have a reaction like me, which was to stiffen my back and say 'yes I can,'" said Capps. "That changed though, after I had been here awhile. I began to see as well as my colleagues and constituents that a nurse can be very effective in public policy."

Stepping into politics does not have to mean stepping away from the bedside. Up until 6 years ago, Keenan continued working as an ED nurse, even while she was serving as a State Representative.

"I would work weekends while we were in session, which was usually January to May and then I would work anywhere from 64-80 hours a pay period when we weren't in session," she said. "My employer was very understanding, which allowed me to make a difference in office and at the bedside."

Up-to-date knowledge of the healthcare industry is key for any nurse pursuing a more active role in policy.

"I keep my RN license current because I feel I am working on healthcare issues just as much as an elected official as when I was officially a nurse," stressed Capps. "Nurses have a special role to play; their knowledge is invaluable."

Beyond Healthcare

While Keenan's time in the ED helped her develop her understanding of the public's healthcare needs, she believes politically active nurses can make a difference in venues that go beyond health.

As Committee Chair of the Commerce Committee Keenan was given the opportunity to deal with a variety of issues including utilities, economic development and labor.

"A day hasn't gone by since I have been in legislature that I haven't learned something new," she said. "Politics not only gives me the chance to make a difference, it allows me to constantly grow."

Women Up Front

Running for office can be difficult for anyone with minimal political experience, but it can be especially difficult for women.

"Not all nurses are women, but women face challenges running for public life because it can be harder for us to raise money for campaigns," said Capps.

What should women do to combat this issue? The 2012 Project says it best, "Don't get mad. Get elected." A national, non-partisan campaign of Rutgers' Center for American Women and Politics, the 2012 Project set out to increase the number of women in Congress and state legislatures, reaching out specifically to individuals, who may not have necessarily considered politics, like nurses.

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The Politics of Staffing

Demand at the state level for safe staffing legislation continues to rise. But will there ever be a national law for nurses?

"Nurses possess a level of insight into healthcare issues and policymaking that makes their role in political office invaluable," said Mary V. Hughes, founder and director of the 2012 Project.

Looking Forward

Nurses have seen firsthand how policy impacts the day to day lives of citizens, especially when it comes to healthcare. With their knowledge and experience nurses have the potential to make a lasting difference.

"Don't hesitate, jump in," said Capps. "Get involved at whatever level you feel drawn to, it can be serving on hospital committees, state legislator, or Congress. You can start anywhere; just take your ideas and push them forward."

"People deserve to get a hand up and I think it crosses both entities. As a legislator you get a chance to offer people a hand up in their life, just as we do with their health," concluded Keenan.

Catlin Nalley is editorial assistant at ADVANCE.

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