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Answering the call: Alternate-entry nursing student finds her voice as health policy advocate

Posted: Dec. 10, 2012

Kate Bell and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison

Kate Bell (on the left) and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison

Before graduating from Stephen F. Austin State University in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in photojournalism, University of Texas at Austin graduate nursing student Kate Bell thought she had a handle on what she wanted to do in life. But after landing a job in sales with a local radio station, something didn’t feel right.

“All through college, I thought I knew what I wanted to do, but I soon found out I didn’t have a clue,” she said.

She quit her sales job and applied to nursing school as an alternate-entry student only to discover she would have to complete 40 hours of prerequisites before ever stepping foot in a nursing education classroom. Her determination to surmount what to most people would seem a daunting workload stood her in good stead this summer, however, as she worked alongside lawmakers and policymakers to help shape health-care legislation in Washington, D.C.

Bell’s sojourn in the nation’s capital was the result of receiving a fellowship from the Archer Graduate Program in Public Policy—the first nursing student to be selected for the prestigious award. The fellowship program was developed to provide graduate students from across the campuses in The University of Texas System with an encompassing academic course on the federal policymaking process. For Bell, it also allowed her to participate in an internship at the Oncology Nursing Society’s (ONS) legislation and advocacy office.

As part of the ONS team, she helped develop alliances with other health-care nonprofits and agencies in order to draft bills to improve health-care access and delivery. One of the groups she worked closely with is the American Association of Colleges of Nurses, which works to advance nursing education and awareness of workforce shortages through the nursing community alliance.

Bell is particularly proud of her contribution to the Patient Equal Access Coalition’s Cancer Drug Coverage Parity Act. Although the bill did not garner the necessary support to pass, the interaction with legislators taught her the importance of making sure that elected officials receive the necessary expert knowledge before drafting legislation.

Former U.S. Representative Bill Archer and Kate Bell

Upon completion of the Graduate Program in Public Policy,
Bell receives her certificate from former U.S. Representative
Bill Archer, founder of the program

“Most of the people in Washington who are making decisions about patients and hospital systems are not patient providers,” she said. “Just as it’s my job to communicate with patients at the bedside, I believe it’s my job to help legislators and staff members to understand what’s at stake for patients, nurses, physicians and hospitals when they are looking at health policy legislation.”

In May 2013, Bell will graduate with a master’s degree as a clinical nurse specialist with an emphasis on adult oncology nursing. But before then, she plans to return to Washington for the ONS Congress annual conference. In addition to attending the three-day event, she looks forward to taking part in planning and executing “Lobby Day,” during which some of the society’s 35,000 members will arrange to meet with as many legislators as possible to update them on important oncology nursing-related issues.

After graduation, Bell plans to continue advocating for nurses and patients.  

“I would really like to work in a research setting,” she said. “I envision working somewhere like M.D. Anderson Cancer Center or the National Institute of Health.”

Bell is currently involved in various other organizations, including the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, American Cancer Society, Halo House, Interfaith Hospitality Network and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She is also an active member of Sigma Theta Tau International Nursing Honor Society, the Association of Nurses in Graduate School, Austin Advanced Practice Nurses, the Texas Nursing Association and the Coalition of Nurses in Advanced Practice.

“This summer I felt I really made a difference,” said Bell, as she reflected recently on her time in Washington. “Politicians want to hear from their constituents. Nurses are taught to communicate, how to read people, and it’s really not that different to use these skills on a much broader scale to make a significant impact.”

That’s why she encourages other nursing students and practicing nurses to get politically active. One way they can begin to do this is through free online advocacy classes offered by the ONS.

Kate Bell and Dr. Francis Collins

Bell and Dr. Francis Collins, director of the NIH and
the Human Genome Project, are photographed at the
House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce

“Nurses by nature are altruistic and don’t normally think about advocating for themselves or being resources for health-related policymaking, but I want them to discover how powerful their input can be,” she added.

Because politicians rely on academics, Bell is looking forward to the upcoming opening of the Texas Legislation session and hopes to be able to make her voice heard there as well. She hopes to bring a focus on the current shortage of nursing school faculty, an important topic of which most people are unaware.

“We have these unbelievably smart, talented students who are being turned away from nursing schools because there aren’t enough faculty to teach them,” Bell said.

Another topic dear to her heart is nursing research. “We produce amazing research at the University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing that can be so helpful in decision-making. I want to promote that to legislators as well.”

Though long and winding, the journey from realizing she hadn’t a clue what to do with her life, to enrolling in a graduate nursing course, to becoming a national health-care advocate has been a fulfilling one to Bell, who now sees her role in life very clearly.

“I saw a need to speak up for nurses and patient-related issues,” Bell said. “I believe I’ve been called to be that voice.”