Nurses are gaining more stature as potential leaders in healthcare, and much of the innovation in healthcare will come from nurses in the future, says Antonia M. Villarruel, PhD, RN, FAAN, professor and Margaret Bond Simon Dean of Nursing, senior fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.

Hospitals should work to leverage the innovative potential of nurses, and nurses in the quality field should look for opportunities to advance their careers through this increasingly available pathway, Villarruel says.

“Nurses have a role to play, and we have the expertise. When you’re thinking of quality assurance and quality improvement, nurses can have a significant influence,” she says. “Nurses’ roles at the patient level get recognized, but we need to be elevated to leadership at the level where system changes can happen. Quality improvement is where people look to make system-level changes, and organizations should look to involve nurse leaders in those efforts.”

A recent report from BDO and the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing addresses how clinical and industry leaders are leveraging nurse innovation. BDO provides this summary of the findings:

• “Nursing innovation has yet to be fully unleashed, including institutionally, regulatorywise, and policywise.” BDO says only 46% of business leaders report their C-suite includes a representative with a nursing background. Less than one-third say they have a nursing leader whose primary responsibility is innovation.

• “Nurses will gain a seat at the leadership table.” Having nurse innovators in advanced leadership by 2025 is considered very important by 57% of leaders, and 81% say it is very important to have nurses as decision-makers on strategic planning teams.

• “Unleashing nurse-led innovation will create positive ROI.” Nurses will play a critical role in transforming care by 2025, BDO says. They will have the most opportunity to influence care in chronic care management, mental health, and population health. (The report is available online at:

The survey results indicate that healthcare leaders are recognizing the value of innovative nurse leaders, but their organizations have not yet fully installed them in leadership positions, says Karen Meador, MD, managing director of the BDO Center for Healthcare Excellence & Innovation in New York City.

“There is an opportunity for more of these institutions to put nurses in these innovator leadership roles. It may not necessarily have the title ‘innovation’ in it, but any healthcare leader needs to be innovating on an ongoing basis,” Meador says.

“Only 7% of CEOs are nurses, and if there is a chief innovation officer, only 8% are nurses. Not having a nurse in an innovative leadership position means they are missing out on the unique perspective that a nurse brings to the table.”

Villarruel notes that the survey found the most valuable skills for nurse innovators are design thinking, clinical acumen, and the interface of clinical acumen and technology. Nurses with these skills will be positioned to advance their careers in quality improvement, she says.

“Innovation is needed to keep moving quality improvement to the next level and address the current challenges,” Villarruel says. “Healthcare organizations are recognizing that having the right nurses in the leadership roles will be beneficial to the goals of the organization, so innovative nurses with the right skill sets will be in demand.”

Meador adds that quality improvement professionals with a nursing background and the desired skill sets should seek recognition and strive for leadership positions.

“A lot of quality improvement professionals are already doing this work and demonstrating these needed skills, but I think it’s time to take the covers off and really show what it is you’re doing to improve patient quality and safety,” Meador says.