A nurse helps position a brace on a patient's wrist.

As a frontline nurse, it's easy to get wrapped up in the daily challenges of work and forget your role as a powerful change agent. You might even question the significance of your voice when nurses in high-profile positions make headlines for influencing healthcare policy and practice. Sure, their voices might echo through the halls of legislative chambers, but they don't hold the monopoly on patient impact—and their role is not mutually exclusive from yours.

You're the beating heart of healthcare delivery and possess a unique perspective that gives you the power to advocate for your patients daily. Your experiences, though not broadcast on the evening news, are the very essence of healthcare itself. Think about it—every patient interaction, every bedside decision, and every compassionate word spoken to comfort a frightened patient is a testament to the profound impact of frontline nurses.

Nurse Advocacy vs. Nurse Lobbying

Nurse advocacy and lobbying contribute to the symphony of voices that can and do shape the future of healthcare and patient outcomes. When you advocate, you build support and enthusiasm around a cause. When you lobby, you target public figures or government bodies with the power to make critical decisions surrounding your cause.

Advocacy Example

Your cause involves preventing chronic disease via a healthy diet and regular exercise. You advocate by educating your patients and the community about the benefits of leading a healthy lifestyle. You give talks, share information, and encourage individuals to make healthier decisions.

Lobbying Example

You're passionate about advocating for increased government funding for public health initiatives to combat obesity. You contact elected officials or policymakers to influence them to allocate more resources to these initiatives. You might present data on the cost-effectiveness of prevention programs or the potential long-term savings in healthcare expenses.

In both cases, you're working towards improving public health. Still, advocacy focuses on promoting general health awareness and practices, while lobbying influences government decisions or policies related to a specific healthcare issue.

Nurse-Patient Connections Speak Volumes

Nurses develop a special rapport with their patients because trauma and illness break down barriers faster than growing connections through everyday social interaction. We invade their personal space to deliver care. We hear their deepest secrets and hopes. We learn their family names; they depend on us for advice and trust us with their healthcare needs.

In a tumultuous sea of regulations, policies, and statistics, we're the ones humanizing healthcare. We bridge the gap between healthcare as a concept and healthcare as a deeply personal experience. Our words, whispered in moments of vulnerability and shared in the quiet of a patient's room, hold immeasurable power. They inspire trust, foster healing, and create lasting connections.

So, while you may not be lobbying for state or federal policies, you're making a difference in the lives of others every time you put on scrubs.

Patient Advocacy Examples

Never discount your nurse intuition rooted in the nurse-patient connection and the power of advocating for your patients. You may not work in Congress, but have saved someone's life or provided comfort.

Here are some stories of how advocating for my patients made a difference.

A young, dangerously ill spina bifida patient was admitted to the ICU one evening accompanied by her boyfriend of several months. He couldn't grasp how critical she was and didn't think it was necessary to tell her parents. The patient was too sick to speak for herself, and confidentiality rules deemed I couldn't call them. I finally told him bluntly. "Your girlfriend might die tonight. You need to call." They arrived in time to say goodbye to their daughter.

Another night, my patient was a young woman with a neck abscess complaining of increased pain. A neck abscess is a collection of pus in the neck tissues that can threaten the airway if it grows in size. The physician had been in to visit a few hours before and was pleased with her progress. Her vital signs were stable, but my intuition told me something was terribly wrong. During our phone conversation, the physician was skeptical but transferred her to another hospital over an hour away, where an ear, nose, and throat surgeon was on call. The surgeon rushed her into surgery, and I learned later that she had only had hours to live if the abscess hadn't been drained.

A nurse discusses lab results with a patient.

5 Misconceptions in Healthcare Advocacy

Advocacy means to suggest or support an idea or a plan of action. You can't advocate for someone or something by sneaking around and hiding behind bushes. Even if nurses desire to advocate for patients, common misconceptions about healthcare advocacy often hinder their efforts. Here are five of them:

1. I'm not qualified. As a nurse, you're qualified to advocate for your patients. You learned nurse advocacy in nursing school or university. As per the American Nurses Association Code of Ethics for Nurses, advocating for your patients is a requirement.  

2. Why bother? Nothing ever changes. How many times have you heard your colleagues complaining about healthcare problems? Whining about issues doesn't change anything. Instead, research the problem, brainstorm solutions, and ask your manager for a meeting. Change can and does happen with the correct approach.

3. It's not important. Nurse advocacy is vital for your patient and their family. Advocating for your patients may save their lives, reduce pain, and make their hospital stay more pleasant.

4. It's too hard. Advocacy can be difficult, especially if you're treated rudely by physicians or colleagues. However, not advocating is even more challenging. You'll never forget the patients you didn't stand up for. The ones who suffered excruciating pain, lost a limb, or died because you were reluctant to wake the physician at night.

5. Real change only occurs at the state or federal level. Policies and laws are created to address problems first noted on the frontlines. If no one spoke out about healthcare problems, they would never become public issues. In addition, you may not be able to improve the big picture, but small changes within your healthcare facility can make a difference for yourself and your colleagues.

Think about it this way. Hospitals are confusing places for most patients and their families. Many arrive with limited financial resources, most don't understand medical terminology, and almost everyone fears their illness and the future. But you understand the healthcare system, know your facility well, and are part of an extensive networking system—making you the best person to advocate and improve the patient experience.

5 Strategies for Effective Nurse Advocacy

Are you convinced of the power of nurse advocacy? Here are five strategies you can use to advocate for your patients:

1. Protect: Be vigilant against any medical errors. Question orders that don't make sense and ask another nurse to check your math when mixing medications.

2. Be Proactive: Educate your patients about their illness and the healthcare system. Help them navigate through the varied treatment options and recovery pathways.

3. Affirm: Actively listen to your patient's concerns. Many have searched the internet for information about their illness and have valid questions.

4. Intercede: Collaborate with interdisciplinary team members about your patient's care needs. Submit a consultation to social work for patient emotional support or to occupational therapy to get a sheepskin for their bed. 

5. Investigate: Is your patient receiving the care they deserve? Ask how you can facilitate their release home and suggest a consultation with the discharge planner. Speak with the risk management team about your concerns over their care and document the outcomes.

The next time you doubt the importance of your words as a frontline nurse, remember this: Your voice is the foundation upon which change happens. It's the catalyst for compassion, the driver of progress, and the embodiment of the unwavering commitment that defines nursing. In a world that sometimes seems dominated by high-profile figures, never underestimate the profound impact of your words, for they are the heartbeat of healthcare itself.

Alice Blackmore, MN, RN, Content Writer

Alice is a registered nurse and healthcare writer. She has more than 20 years of nursing experience, which ranges from labor and delivery to long-term care, with pediatrics, community nursing, and critical care sandwiched in the middle.