How to Become a Clinical Nurse Leader

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Written by Ayana Dunn, BSN, RN Content Writer, IntelyCare
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A clinical nurse leader (CNL) plays a dynamic role by acting as a communication center for the patient and healthcare team. If this rewarding career interests you, you’re likely curious about how to become a CNL. Read on to find answers to your questions.

What Is a Clinical Nurse Leader?

CNLs collaborate with caregivers and healthcare workers to facilitate clear communication between departments. Their efforts aim to reduce medical errors, expedite necessary procedures, and improve overall quality of care, similar to the job of medical and health services managers.

Clinical Nurse Leader Salary

The competitive salaries of CNLs are one of the many benefits of pursuing this path. The average CNL salary in the U.S. is $94,795 per year, and ranges from around $85,376 to $105,309. This varies based on experience level, the specific facility, and location.

Where Do Clinical Nurse Leaders Work?

Clinical nurse leaders can work in a variety of healthcare settings. Some examples include:

  • Hospitals
  • Long-term care facilities
  • Private practices
  • Community health clinics

What Does a Clinical Nurse Leader Do?

CNLs can work with a range of healthcare professionals: doctors, physical therapists, occupational therapists, nursing assistants, pharmacists, and more. They are a resource when members of the healthcare team have questions, and also ensure that policies, procedures, and research are up to date.

The CNL role includes:

  • Making sure the facility is following evidence-based practices set by the Joint Commission and other regulatory bodies
  • Meeting with department leaders for patient status updates, and making necessary adjustments to care based on input from the registered nurses caring for those patients
  • Collecting and analyzing data regarding patient care, sharing the findings in team meetings, and receiving staff feedback to create a realistic plan for implementing necessary changes
  • Overseeing care coordination by ensuring that all members of the patient’s care team are on the same page throughout the process, and filling in any communication gaps
  • Changing care plans when necessary to sure they’re aligned with any pertinent changes in the patient’s health

Clinical Nurse Leader vs. Clinical Nurse Specialist

Clinical nurse leaders and clinical nurse specialists (CNS) may sound like they’re the same role, but there’s a key difference. Both are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who complete similar tasks, but a CNS has a wider scope. A CNS is responsible for an entire patient population, while CNLs care for a specific patient or a small group of patients.

Clinical Nurse Leader

Clinical Nurse Specialist

Education Requirements BSN and MSN BSN and MSN, sometimes a DNP
Provides Direct Patient Care? No Yes
Examples of Job Duties
  1. Speaking with the physician team to discuss nursing implications of a care plan.
  2. Coordinate with occupational therapy to prioritize patient care tasks on a unit. 
  3. Planning a patient’s transfer to another unit that is more appropriate for their diagnosis. 
  1. Nurse anesthetists help administer and monitor anesthesia to patients in the operating room. 
  2. Nurse midwives support birthing patients as they plan for birth.
  3. Nurse practitioners assess patients in the primary care setting and manage prescriptions. 

CNL Education Requirements

Learning about the necessary nursing education is a key step on the path to becoming a CNL. Nurses must acquire an advanced degree specializing in clinical nurse leadership after completing their BSN in order to pursue this career path.

Clinical Nurse Leader Certification

A CNL certification isn’t necessary to function in this role, but it shows your commitment to this specialty. It also ensures you are up to date on industry changes and gives you an edge during the hiring process.

To be certified as a CNL, you must pass the computerized CNL exam that takes approximately three hours to complete. The Commission on Nurse Certification manages this process and provides guidance regarding eligibility, exam procedures, and the reinstatement process.

What Are Some Good CNL Skills to Develop?

Like any specialty, this job requires skills uniquely suited to this role to care for patients and support staff:

Excellent Communicator

One of the core purposes of a CNL is to ensure clear communication between nurses, physicians, nurse practitioners, and other members of the healthcare team. Strong communication skills are a must.

Imagine learning that a patient interpreted her discharge plans differently from what the physician explained to you. It’s your responsibility to remove this discrepancy by making sure the patient and healthcare team are on the same page.

Detail Oriented

These nurses are responsible for the implementation and communication of important information. It’s of the utmost importance that CNLs dot their i’s and cross their t’s.

Let’s say you’re assessing whether the Joint Commission’s protocols are being applied to a patient. Everything looks good aside from a detail that could be easily overlooked if you chose to do so. Instead, you uphold excellent nursing practice by ensuring all details are accounted for to the best of your facility’s ability.

Able to See the Big Picture

Since these nurses are so central to the facility, they must be able to make connections between different departments and understand how changes in each affect the whole.

Consider this: You’re responsible for a patient who was admitted to the hospital for kidney failure. As soon as you learn the patient shows signs of stabilization, you start researching dialysis centers in the patient’s location because you know they’ll need that service after discharge.

Analytical Thinker

CNLs must process and gain insight about various forms of information to benefit patients and staff. It’s essential that a CNL can think critically about complex topics.

Let’s say a patient is admitted for severe malnutrition. You learn that both of the patient’s parents died within the past year. Before meeting the patient, you guess that the admission diagnoses and recent death may be linked. You keep an open mind as you learn about the patient, but you’re already thinking about suggesting a referral for a psych evaluation.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Clinical Nurse Leader?

Since this position requires hands-on experience and an advanced practice degree, it will likely take at least six to eight years to reach this career goal.

Career Path for Clinical Nurse Leaders

Everything we discussed above may be a lot to take in, so here’s a quick summary of how to how to achieve this goal:

1. Obtain Your BSN

You need to complete nursing school to become a nurse, let alone a clinical nurse leader. Although you can work as a nurse with your associate’s degree, you must acquire your bachelor’s degree to become a CNL. Whether it’s a traditional, accelerated, or a bridge program, there’s an option that best fits your needs.

2. Pass the NCLEX-RN

After you obtain your BSN, you must pass the national nursing boards to practice as a nurse or continue your climb up the nursing education ladder. To begin a CNL program, passing the NCLEX-RN is as important as completing nursing school.

3. Get Hands-On Experience

It’s not always necessary to work as a nurse before getting your master’s degree, but it’s often preferred. Everything you learn in a CNL program makes more sense if you’ve already entered the workforce. Plus, how are you going to be a successful nurse leader if you haven’t seen what they must tackle in real life?

4. Pursue an MSN Degree in Clinical Leadership

A master’s program is your chance to hone your leadership skills and acquire knowledge unique to clinical nurse leadership. Plus, you’ll need this information for the CNL certification exam.

5. Pass the CNL Certification Exam

Once you’ve passed the CNL certification exam, you’re an official clinical nurse leader. Make sure you highlight this accomplishment in your resumes and interviews. Being certified can prove your industry knowledge and dedication to future employers. Plus, it may give you an edge over applicants without those credentials.

Is Becoming a Clinical Nurse Leader the Right Choice for You?

Would you like to have a positive impact on many lives by pursuing this multifaceted career? We can help you get there. IntelyCare can send you select nursing jobs that get you closer to your goals. Learn more today.