Nursing skills transfer well to elected office

From municipal offices to the  nurses have found a way to serve their communities in a new capacity — as elected officials, bringing with them transferable nursing skills and a desire to make the world a better place.

“Nurses make excellent legislators,” said New Jersey Assemblywoman Nancy F. Munoz (R-District 21), RN, MSN, CNS. “Everything you do as a nurse prepares you for the legislature.” 

New York State Sen. George D. Maziarz (R-District 62), who has pushed legislation supportive of nursing, agreed, saying “nurses make excellent elected officials.”

He attributes that to nurses’ experience interacting with the public during stressful times.

“That’s great experience for handling delicate situations in public life,” Maziarz said.

Nurses enter the healthcare profession with compassion and the desire to help people, particularly those in vulnerable situations, and those traits serve them well in public life, added New York Assemblywoman Aileen M. Gunther, RN (D-District 98).

“In your nursing career you work with people from all places in life and that gives you a great understanding,” Gunther said. “The ability to work with everybody is one of the things you learn in a nursing career.”

Munoz agreed, saying nurses are “people persons” able to work with different constituents, just as they care for a variety of patients. Munoz represents 220,000 people, all with their own opinions. Sometimes she disagrees with them, she said, but as in nursing, she treats them respectfully, listens to their concerns and comes up with a plan of action.

“In nursing, we are problem solvers, and in the legislature that is true as well,” Munoz said.

Joan Orseck, RN, a Republican councilperson in Glen Rock, N.J., who recently retired from Hackensack (N.J.) University Medical Center, said it takes “being involved, being the person you are and the values you have and trying to make decisions based on what is best for everyone in your town, looking at the whole picture.”

Orseck said some of the most important skills nurses can bring to elected office are good communication with colleagues and constituents and trustworthiness.

“When you are a nurse, people believe what you are telling [them] and trust you, and it’s the same on the council,” Orseck said. “They want to believe you are honest and trust you.”

While politicians typically score poorly on trusted professions surveys, nursing is one of the most trusted fields.

In a recent Gallup poll, 84% of respondents rated nurses high or very high on honesty and ethical standards, up slightly from 81% in 2010, whereas only 7% of respondents rated members of Congress as being honest and ethical.

Being a nurse can work to a public official’s advantage. Munoz finds that telling people she is a nurse sometimes helps build trust.

Nurses have earned that trust because they focus consistently on the patient and protecting him or her, said Pat Barnett, RN, JD, the CEO of the New Jersey State Nurses Association and The Institute for Nursing in Trenton, N.J.

“The same skill comes to bear as a legislator,” Barnett said. “You care about your constituents, want what is best for your constituents and fight for your constituents.”

Great organizational skills, a must for nurses, come in handy for elected officials as well, Gunther said. Nurses frequently multitask, an ability rewarded in public service. Nurses also bring intellect and critical thinking to the legislative role.

“Nurses are able to step back and look at the bigger picture,” Barnett said. “Whether taking care of patients or a group of patients or running a hospital, nurses do not do [just] one thing. You do multiple things with multiple people all of the time. You are accustomed to multitasking and accustomed to dealing with crises and staying on top of the research and the new issues.”

Similarly, elected officials must stay abreast of changing trends, laws and regulatory issues, focus in on one thing and then address something else.

“Nurses are very in tune to what is happening in the larger group,” Barnett said. “We tend to work in a community, whether in a hospital or clinic setting. We work with people. We listen, and we are accustomed to working with large groups.”

Those attributes are beneficial when working with constituents, who often show up as a group seeking assistance or support from their elected officials.

Both careers require teamwork. In the legislature, “in order to get any idea you have to become a bill and a law, you have to work as a team, and that’s what we do in nursing,” Munoz said.

Gunther agreed, noting nurses work with others to ensure patients receive needed care, and legislators must work with their staff and other elected officials, including colleagues in the other party, to pass legislation or intervene in constituent matters.

“You have to be a public servant and do the right thing,” Gunther said.

Orseck said being outgoing and enthusiastic also is important. Nurses and elected officials must be approachable. People should feel comfortable asking both nurses and legislators questions.

“People see you and feel they can come up and talk to you,” Orseck said. “I think those traits for both [roles] are very important.”

Nursing provides people with many skills transferable to public service.

“I cannot think of a profession that better prepares you to be a legislator than being a professional nurse,” Munoz said. “I think there should be more nurses who would look to get into the legislature.”

Barnett added that nurses tend to undervalue themselves and feel they must have expertise before trying something new, but the willingness to learn and to understand difficult issues are skills many other people have not developed.

“Nurses have a lot to offer,” Barnett said. “We need to say, ‘Yes, we can do it,’ and have something to offer. The problem is we don’t, and we should.”