What Is Health Policy and What Role Does It Play in Nursing?

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A nurse practitioner sits down with a healthcare consultant to talk. Health care is a basic human need. Across cultures, individuals require clinical intervention to remediate their injuries and illnesses, and communities benefit from the promotion of basic wellness practices and disease prevention. These efforts, designed to achieve shared goals, fall under the heading of health policy.

But what is health policy, exactly? The World Health Organization (WHO) defines it as the “decisions, plans, and actions that are undertaken to achieve specific health care goals within a society.” This broad category can be broken down into discrete policies, such as those related to mental health care and health care affordability.

Health policy shapes the entire health care landscape, including both patients and providers. Nurses and nurse practitioners play a direct role in shaping, implementing and assessing the health policies in their communities. This requires a robust set of skills and a foundational understanding of population health, health financing, and more. Enrollment in an online Master of Science in Nursing program can be a good first step toward cultivating these skills.

What Is Health Policy?

Health policy is best understood as a set of overarching principles and goals that dictate how care is delivered and accessed. Health care policy can be codified at a national or state level, and then more finely honed in a hospital or clinical environment.

The Importance of Health Policy

Health policy is aspirational, which is to say that it’s designed to show health providers the kind of outcomes they’re shooting for. As WHO puts it, health policy “defines a vision for the future which in turn helps to establish targets and points of reference for the short and medium term.”

Additionally, health policy helps to clarify priorities; it establishes roles and expectations for different groups, whether doctors, nurses or administrators. It also helps to build a consensus among the different participants in a community or a health system.

Different Kinds of Health Policy

Health policy can be divided into different categories, each of which addresses a different health care component. Some primary examples include:

  • Global health. Global health takes a big-picture view, assessing the health needs of populations across the planet and striving to achieve equity of care.
  • Public health. Public health describes the policies enacted on a national, state or community level to promote healthy lifestyles and prevent the spread of infectious diseases.
  • Pharmaceuticals. Health policy may touch on the regulation, availability and affordability of pharmaceutical products.
  • Financing. Health policy can determine how care is financed, including the extent to which the state reimburses health facilities for their services.
  • Mental health. Mental health care is a key consideration in creating health policy, providing goals and objectives for promoting mental well-being and treating those with mental health conditions.
  • Health equity. A stated goal of many health policies is to ensure that care is administered in a fair way, across different communities and demographics.
  • Insurance. Heath policy may also determine the role that insurance plays in financing care, promote affordable or public insurance options, and regulate what insurers can and can’t do.
  • Health care services. The codification of a health policy will directly impact the kinds of health care services available in an area.

The Role of Health Practitioners in Health Policy

Nurse practitioners play a vital role in impacting health policy. Specifically, nurse practitioners implement health policies and have the ability to influence health care systems and organizations to provide better health outcomes for patients. Nurse practitioners are at the front lines of care, which means it often falls to them to translate big-picture health policies and procedures into one-on-one patient interactions.

A reason that nurse practitioners are so crucial to health policy development is that they spend much of their time interacting with patients and understanding their needs. As such, nurse practitioners generally have a good grasp on what’s working and what’s not. They can relay successes and limitations to policymakers, who can hone health policy accordingly.

Nurse leaders often play an important role in communicating health policy to the nursing team members who report to them — and in holding those nurses accountable to stated goals and expectations.

Some specific ways in which nurse practitioners can shape health policy include:

  • Analyzing existing policies and pointing out inefficiencies, missing components, or opportunities to improve the delivery or affordability of care
  • Proposing new policies based on needs encountered in day-to-day practice
  • Meeting with policymakers, administrators and lobbyists to provide clinical insight into policy proposals

Developing Skills to Include Health Policy

Nurse practitioners can impact health policy in different ways, simply depending on their practice specialty. Consider these examples:

  • A family nurse practitioner sees patients of all ages and may provide insight into how health policy can make care more accessible to families of different demographic and socioeconomic backgrounds.
  • An adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner may have a higher level of experience in caring for older adults, allowing them to speak more specifically to disease prevention and wellness promotion in this community.
  • A psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner can speak to the ways in which current health policies are either promoting or diminishing mental wellness among their patients.

To effectively implement health policy and to advocate for positive changes, nurse practitioners need a strong educational background in their specialty. A good starting point is enrollment in University of North Dakota’s online Master of Science in Nursing program. The curriculum includes an important course called Ethical, Legal and Health Policy Issues that provides crucial frameworks for analyzing and influencing policy at all levels.

What Is Health Policy, and How Can You Influence It?

For nurse practitioners looking to both understand and impact health policy, the right education is critical. University of North Dakota’s online Master of Science with a Major in Nursing program offers an important focus on the ways in which policy shapes care. Learn more about the program today.


American Nurses Association, Health Policy 

Insight Medical Publishing, Healthcare Policies 

Reflections on Nursing Leadership, “Influence Through Policy: Nurses Have a Unique Role” 

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners 

World Health Organization, Health Policy