Nurses are often strong advocates for their patients, but have traditionally been less effective in advocating for their own needs. Advocacy can be defined as supporting a cause — it’s as simple as that. Advocates are people who identify a need or an issue that must be addressed, then work through different channels to achieve a goal. Political lobbyists have perfected advocacy, but nurses have been slower to mobilize and understand that real change in healthcare is possible when nurses become strong advocates for themselves, for their peers, and for the nursing profession.
Identifying a problem and desiring change is not enough — nurses must utilize the skills they learn in advocating for their patients and transfer these skills to a broader arena in advocating for the nursing profession. So what skills are needed? Karen Tomajan (Medscape, 2012) outlines the necessary skills as follows:
Problem solving: As nurses, we problem-solve on a daily basis. Problem solving involves identifying an issue and developing a strategy to solve the issue or problem. While this is easy enough to do in our daily working life, it becomes more difficult when advocating for a broader issue or change. The bigger the arena and the issue, the greater the number of people that must be convinced and the longer it takes to effect change. Doing our homework beforehand thus becomes necessary if we want to be effective advocates. This may involve identifying key stakeholders, researching the issue at hand to ferret out compelling evidence to support the chosen stance, and determining the best time and place to go forward.
Communication: Although we talk about communication a great deal in nursing and communicate on a daily basis, advocacy means effectively delivering your message to the right people in the right way. Communication may be verbal, written or electronic in nature and must fit the target audience’s needs. Using real examples backed up by facts, rather than opinions, can make an argument more compelling. Discussing the positive impact of an issue or change is crucial to winning the approval of those you have identified as key decision-makers.
Influence: Influence refers to one’s ability to alter individual or group thoughts, actions or beliefs. Advocacy requires influence to succeed, and the person or persons delivering the message must be credible, trustworthy and competent in order to successfully sway others to their position. This requires the ability to build a compelling case for change, back up the argument with hard facts and convey the positive impact that the desired change will have on the issue at hand. Influence must be tempered with relatively small amounts of persuasion which, according to Tomajan, can backfire if utilized too heavily.
Collaboration: As nurses, we frequently work with a wide variety of other healthcare professionals. Advocacy for a cause may require nurses to move beyond other healthcare workers and seek out groups or individuals that can further the cause, such as people who will be affected by the issue or individuals/groups with their own intersecting agendas (i.e. members of the legal community, government or special interest groups). Collaboration requires mutual respect, trust and credibility, as well as frequent and honest communication. What is the end result of collaboration? When groups with similar concerns or interests work together, they can achieve more than if they were to tackle the issue alone; in other words, there is strength in numbers.
Given the rapid changes occurring in the healthcare system, nurses need to come together to advocate for themselves and the profession. As more and more pressure is placed on nurses to do more with less, advocating for our patients is no longer enough — we must also advocate for ourselves to ensure that the future of healthcare is bright and sustainable. As Tomajan points out, “Despite nursing’s strengths inherent in its size, diversity, and unique relationship with the public, the full potential for influence by the nursing profession has yet to be realized.”