The Clinical Nurse Leader Role


by Kathy Oliphant, MSN, RN, CNL, NEA-BC

The Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL) is a relatively new nursing role, having been developed in 2004 by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing in response to the Institute of Medicine’s quality and safety reports. A Master’s level CNL program was developed to prepare nurses with the skills needed to successfully lead in the current healthcare environment while ensuring safe care is provided using evidence-based best practices for optimal quality outcomes. In addition to graduation from an accredited CNL program, there is a national certification exam that graduates must pass to use the title of Clinical Nurse Leader.

The overall goal of the CNL role is to improve patient outcomes. This is attained by constantly evaluating strategies to improve the triple aim of achieving better quality outcomes, providing an enhanced patient experience, and examining ways to improve efficiencies associated with the cost of care. In this role, CNLs evaluate quality at the point of care and integrate evidence into practice while focusing on a specific cohort of patients with complex needs. They monitor data to analyze trends and develop action plans to improve patient outcomes. CNLs facilitate communication with interdisciplinary teams and collaborate to implement and sustain practice changes.

In our current healthcare environment, we are challenged to provide continuity of care amid increasing complexity and pressure for improved safety and quality. The CNL assists with transitioning patients through a seamless system where caregivers feel responsible for patients throughout the entire care continuum, which includes decreasing potential gaps in care between physician office appointments, emergency department visits, hospital stays, home care visits, and other skilled care environments such as rehabilitation and long term care facilities.

Clinical Nurse Leader accomplishments at many organizations include improving quality measures, decreasing the average hospital length of stay, improving patient education, decreasing readmission rates, and increasing patient satisfaction scores. It takes all healthcare disciplines working together to achieve these wonderful results.

Observing CNL colleagues embrace this innovative nursing role, I am reminded of a favorite quote from Mother Teresa: “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” It is inspirational to work with dedicated nurses and witness their deep commitment to providing the best patient care.


For the past five years, Kathy Oliphant worked at TriHealth in Cincinnati, Ohio, and most recently was the Director of Inpatient Care Coordination. She was responsible for the implementation of the Clinical Nurse Leader program on 19 nursing units at two system hospitals. Kathy is a seasoned nursing executive with a track record of significant achievement in both acute care hospital and integrated delivery settings. Kathy’s career at Cleveland Clinic spanned 25 years with a clinical focus in nephrology nursing, including dialysis and kidney transplant populations, and leadership roles in a variety of settings. Her expertise includes creating a positive practice environment with an emphasis on high quality care and patient safety, as evidenced by successful Magnet hospital designation, staff recruitment and retention, and improved patient experience. She is extremely passionate about the role of the CNL with improving patient outcomes.

Disclaimer: The viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at Healthcare Staffing Innovations, LLC.

2 Comments

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  1. 1
    Marlene Bryce

    I am also a graduate of CNL program but I did not take the exam .Presently I live in New York but plan to locate to Florida I hope then to take the boards and work as a CNL

  2. 2
    Carol

    Excellent! Very insightful and great explanation. A fairly new role that makes nursing care stronger. TriHealth is Fortunate to have the CNL as part of our care team!

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