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The Campaign for a "National Nurse"

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   August 03, 2010

A grassroots campaign is underway to create an Office of the National Nurse. The initiative calls for a national nursing leader, similar in stature to the U.S. Surgeon General, who will serve as a figurehead for nurses around the country, and spearhead health prevention efforts.

The movement has received much support, and there is legislation now in the U.S. House.

I wondered what a national nurse would do and why supporters felt there should be one, so I spoke with Teri Mills, author of the original New York Times op-ed that first suggested the idea back in 2005.

Turns out, America already sort of has a national nurse. There is a chief nurse officer at the U.S. Public Health Service, and Mills’ proposal is to create an Office of the National Nurse and elevate this CNO to be officially known as “national nurse.”

“So few people even know the chief nursing officer exists,” says Mills. “Even members of Congress do not know this position exists. We would like Congress to have this position be known as the national nurse.”

Mills is the president of the National Nursing Network Organization, which was founded to campaign for the national nurse initiative. She says the beauty of the position is that the framework already exists and a little effort could make the position a leader in health prevention, working with organizations such as the American Heart Association and National Kidney Association, to improve Americans’ health.

The chief nurse position is currently part time. Under the legislation, it would become a full time position, with a redefined focus for the bureaucracy that already exists. Mills understands the political realities she faces. “The country has a huge deficit,” she says. “Now is not a time to be asking for new money or new bureaucracy. But we have a position already.”

“We have an incredible epidemic of chronic preventable conditions,” adds Mills. Recent healthcare reform legislation includes “money for health promotion and prevention. But we need leadership. What is missing is the messenger.”

Mills argues that a National Nurse could provide leadership to the nation’s 3.4 million nurses to deliver the message of prevention in multiple languages to every American by partnering and strengthening the work of existing groups, including the Office of the Surgeon General.

“Health education and promotion is the cornerstone of every nurse’s practice,” says Mills. “Nurses have a really good record in promoting health literacy. The national nurse could inspire and engage nurses to participate in health prevention.”

The grassroots campaign has been gathering momentum over the last few years. It does not employ professional lobbyists in Washington. Instead, it relies on support from nurses in the field who are slowly spreading the word and debating whether a national nurse can be a unifying voice for the profession. Mills encourages nurses to visit the website to learn more about what she believes a national nurse could accomplish.

In the meantime, although the bill has 17 cosponsors, it will likely need another trip through Congress before it gets close to passing. The National Nursing Network Organization is soliciting input from across the healthcare spectrum to craft a bill with the best chance of success.

Rebecca Hendren is a senior managing editor at HCPro, Inc. in Danvers, MA. She edits and manages The Leaders' Lounge blog for nurse managers. Email her at

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