Nursing Professional Development: Roles and Accountabilities

Diana Swihart, PhD, DMin, MSN, CS, RN-BC


July 08, 2009

Let us never consider ourselves finished nurses....we must be learning all of our lives --
Florence Nightingale

How do organizations recruit and retain the best students and nurses available in the midst of a profound nursing shortage? How do they bring an advanced beginner employee who is new to nursing practice or a clinician new to leadership, for example, into greater levels of professional competency, proficiency, and expertise to achieve the best possible patient care outcomes in the least amount time with the fewest possible resources? How do they manage escalating technologies for a global audience?

Nurses are expected to recognize and respond to a plethora of new demands arising from an ever-changing and increasingly complex healthcare system. Multiple new regulations and accreditations processes, professional standards, increased accountabilities, and financial priorities require more of direct care nurses and nurse leaders already struggling to gain and sustain competencies in evolving arenas of practice, quality, and safe patient care. Today’s politico-societal healthcare environments include growing shifts and disconnects in patient care needs and the availability of human, material, and fiscal resources required to meet those needs.

Nursing professional development specialists are the keys to successful succession planning, managing competing priorities, and effecting cost avoidance. These practitioners are more than educators. They emphasize safety, quality, efficiency, and effectiveness of practice while rapidly transitioning diverse generations of nurses into practice. They understand adult learning principles, career development in healthcare and communities of practice, continuing education program development and management, transformational/servant leadership (Keith 2008), systems redesign, complex implementation, and strategic planning. The American Nurses Association (2009b) distinguishes Nursing Professional Development (NPD) as a professional specialty based on the sciences of nursing, technology, research and evidence-based practice, practice-based evidence, change, communication, leadership, and education.

NPD specialists work in a variety of practice settings and environments of care. Some are in colleges and universities and facilitate the learning experiences of student nurses. Others work in clinical settings to orient, precept, and manage competencies of staff nurses, new graduates, and student nurses working at the point of care, providing support and facilitation to nurses with an immediate need for knowledge and/or skills to guide their practice, sometimes called ‘bedside learning’ or ‘just-in-time’ learning (American Nurses Association 2009a, 2009b). These NPD specialists are often called Clinical Nurse Educators and wear many hats, i.e., educator, servant leaders (Keith 2008), facilitator, consultant, change agent, coach, and researcher. They support nursing research, evidence-based practice, and quality improvement through professional development of direct care nurses and nurse leaders at the point of care (American Nurses Association 2009a, 2009b).

Some of the many ways NPD specialists contribute to professional development in practice and learning environments and services are woven into their roles and accountabilities (American Nurses Association 2009a, 2009b; Bruce 2009; Keith 2008; Cohen 2007). NPD specialists provide orientation, inservices, and competency and continuing education programs for interdisciplinary and interprofessional employees. Orientations include organizational and service-specific mission, vision, philosophies, goals, policies and procedures, role expectations, and an introduction to the organization. Inservices and competencies management generally address knowledge and skills acquisitions related to environments of care, job functions, and decision-making responsibilities, thereby increasing professional abilities and confidence. Continuing education helps nurses meet regulatory requirements, i.e., certification criteria, licensure/relicensure mandates, and The Joint Commission, among others.

Some organizations seek credentialing as education providers with their state boards of nursing and/or the American Nurses Credentialing Center to enable them to provide programs that enhance professional learning experiences, contribute to career development and advancement, and respond proactively to issues and trends that contribute to quality, safe, ethical, innovative, and efficient health care practices.

As change agents, NPD specialists trend healthcare issues to influence practice environments (hospitals, long-term care facilities, community/public health care centers, schools and colleges, outpatient clinics, healthcare systems) and learning environments (provider-directed, learner-directed, provider-directed learner-paced) through research, education, networking and consultation, inter-professional collaboration and partnerships, and servant leadership. They influence healthcare change locally, nationally, and internationally through their global contributions to nursing professional development and information-sharing around structures, processes, and outcomes.

NPD specialists facilitate evidence-based practice; practice-based evidence; quality improvement with data collection, analysis, and synthesis; and, project management by bringing nursing research to the point of care. Evidence-based practice is a science-to-service model of engagement of critical thinking to apply research-based evidence (scientific knowledge) and practice-based evidence (art of nursing) within the context of patient values to deliver quality, cost-sensitive care. Practice-based evidence is a practice-to-science model in which data are derived from interventions thought to be effective but for which empirical evidence is lacking. Providers are engaged in data collection, analysis, and synthesis to inform practice (American Nurses Association 2008, p 61). They need to understand how nursing research fits into the roles, responsibilities, and opportunities available for nurses in all practice settings to facilitate their participation and contributions to their profession. NPD specialists advise, collaborate, translate, integrate, and evaluate nursing and clinical research that is in the literature and/or in progress within the organization through practice, education, and reflective discussion with staff and interprofessional partners.

In the role of the servant leader, NPD specialists provide encouragement, respect, support, boundaries, protection, advocacy, guidance, and mentorships that influence nurses’ transition into autonomous, professional nurses. They integrate ethical principles, service, and leadership into all of their activities, role modeling transformational leadership and professionalism that entice nurses to take risks, share in decision-making, and explore their own potential.

The roles and accountabilities of NPD reflect the unique knowledge, skills, insights, and experiences of nurses who have advanced their practice into staff development, continuing education, and academia on a global scale. Today’s evolving technology and the shifting education platforms used to prepare nurses for professional practice are reflected in the expanded learning needs of new graduates and seasoned nurses alike. NPD specialists work with a wide range of competencies, learning needs, and tiered academically prepared nurses across all practice settings and environments of care. They partner with healthcare providers and nurse leaders to ensure a safe, effective, and efficient environment of care. They are involved in project management, academic and clinical education, program and portfolio development, competencies management, continuing education and return on investment, leadership and relationship-building, research and evidence-based practice implementation, cybergogy (learning through technology), and nursing practice excellence. They do all of this and more for the present and future of professional nursing.

This content is provided by American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) for publication on the website.

The American Nurses Credentialing Center's (ANCC) internationally renowned credentialing programs certify nurses in specialty practice areas, recognize healthcare organizations for nursing excellence through the Magnet Recognition® and Pathway to Excellence Programs, and accredit providers of continuing nursing education. In addition, ANCC offers an array of informational and educational services and products to support its core credentialing programs.

ANCC is passionate about helping nurses on their journey to nursing excellence. Visit ANCC's web site at

he American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) is a subsidiary of the American Nurses Association (ANA).


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