How to become a clinical lead nurse (Definition and skills)

Updated 1 June 2023

Clinical lead nurses oversee nursing teams and ensure the department delivers high-quality care to patients. Advancing to this role requires extensive nursing expertise and a specific set of practical and interpersonal skills, including the ability to motivate others. Learning about how to become a clinical lead nurse may help you decide if you want to pursue this career. In this article, we explain what a clinical lead nurse is and their responsibilities, outline how to become a clinical lead nurse and share practical skills for success in this profession.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

What is a clinical lead nurse?

A clinical lead nurse is a senior role within a nursing team that oversees the work of an entire clinical nursing team or unit. Clinical lead nurses coordinate the clinical nursing staff's daily activities to ensure the delivery of effective care to patients. They help create a welcoming and safe environment while promoting independence and educating patients and their families on proper care standards. Nurses in this role frequently find employment at hospitals, but they may also apply for jobs at other healthcare facilities, such as nursing homes or private clinics. Their other duties include:

  • Ensuring staff members work effectively by providing them with supplementary training and ongoing support

  • Making adjustments to existing clinical nursing processes to improve the team's efficiency

  • Co-operating with physicians to develop care plans based on a patient's individual medical needs

  • Setting standards to maintain accurate and detailed patient and case records

  • Conducting periodic performance reviews for clinical nurses

Related: Clinical nurse specialist vs nurse practitioner explained

Find clinical lead nurse jobs

How to become a clinical lead nurse

Learning how to become a clinical lead nurse can help you prepare a realistic career development plan and discover which professional areas to invest in if you want to increase your chances of advancing to a senior clinical nursing role. Here are seven steps to becoming a clinical lead nurse:

1. Obtain a nursing degree

The first step to becoming a clinical lead nurse involves completing a degree in nursing. This is a mandatory step because nursing is a regulated profession. To qualify for an undergraduate course in nursing, schools require at least three A-levels, including English, maths and a science subject, such as biology or chemistry, at grades ABB or above. If English isn't your first language, universities are likely to ask for your IELTS results, and most accept a result of 7.0 overall, with at least 6.0 from each component.

If you decide to study full time, it takes three years to complete a nursing degree. Some schools may offer dual degrees, which last four years. You may study nursing part-time, which takes around four to six years. If you already have a degree in a nursing-related subject, you might explore accelerated courses, which take only two years.

Related: A comprehensive guide to nursing degrees (With jobs)

2. Choose a nursing specialisation

As a nursing student, you can explore four nursing specialisations. They're adult, children's, learning disability and mental health nursing. Each specialisation may lead to becoming a clinical lead nurse. To improve your chances of working in this role, consider specialising in adult nursing. It allows you to focus on helping adult patients, and you can use this expertise to apply for a clinical lead role in places such as a hospital's emergency department or nursing home.

Related: How much does an adult nurse make? Salaries and career paths

3. Become a registered nurse

Once you complete your course and graduate with a nursing degree, the next step is to become a registered nurse. The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), the organisation that regulates nursing as a profession, is also the organisation you want to register with as a recent nursing graduate. To join a register, the NMC requires you to upload your personal and course information and provide a declaration of your good health and character. It takes up to 10 days for the NMC to review an application. There's also an annual fee to join the registry.

Related: Nurse practitioner vs registered nurse: differences

4. Gain clinical nursing experience

As a clinical nurse, you gain practical experience in acute care. This is important if you want to lead a clinical nursing team, as it helps you improve skills necessary for developing nursing care pathways or providing condition-specific advice. Clinical nurses provide direct patient care every day, but their jobs may also involve research to help them improve the quality of clinical care they provide. There are various healthcare sectors that clinical nurses can work in, including emergency or psychiatric medicine. To qualify for becoming a clinical lead nurse, you require at least five years of clinical experience.

Related: 34 clinical nurse interview questions (With example answers)

5. Complete safeguarding training

Safeguarding is a term that describes the measures that anyone can take to protect the health and well-being of others. As a clinical nurse leader, completing safeguarding training prepares you to handle patients who, for example, have experienced neglect or abuse. It also equips you with the necessary knowledge to educate those around you on techniques for protecting their family members or even strangers, as this training teaches you how to identify even subtle signs of neglect. This qualification may not be a requirement for all clinical lead nurse jobs, but it may improve your chances.

Related: How can training in safeguarding help you in your role?

6. Advance to a leadership role

An effective way to become a clinical lead nurse is through a nurse manager position. As a nurse manager, you can start overseeing the work of others. It also allows you to handle more administrative responsibilities, such as developing staff schedules or performance reports.

Related: 11 leadership styles in nursing (With definitions)

7. Learn about the development and implementation of healthcare policies

A key difference between a nurse manager and a lead nurse is that lead nurses handle advanced administrative tasks. For example, they may contribute to developing new policies and implementing long-term plans to improve a facility's quality of care. Learning about these aspects of a clinical lead nurse's job may improve your chances of advancing to this role.

Related: 15 healthcare roles that pay well (Including salaries)

Practical skills for clinical lead nurses

To become a clinical lead nurse, work on your soft skills, including communication, empathy and conflict resolution. In addition, focus on developing a strong set of practical abilities that helps you excel as a nurse and nursing leader. Here are examples of hard skills for clinical nurse leaders:

Planning and delivery of healthcare training

As a clinical lead nurse, your role is to continuously improve the unit's or facility's efficiency by increasing the standard of nursing care. One way to do this involves providing a team you manage with interesting and useful training opportunities. As part of this, employers also expect you to know how to assess nurses' training needs and create a schedule that allows them to train while handling their usual workload.

Related: Levels of nursing training (With careers and salaries)

Ability to use modern medical equipment

Technology is a trending topic in healthcare, including nursing. Each year, medical facilities begin using new equipment that requires qualified personnel with strong IT proficiency. As a lead nurse, you may operate equipment such as electronic health records and teach others how to use them.

Related: In-demand IT skills (Tips and how to emphasise them at work)

Case management software

Case management software works similarly to customer relationship management systems. These tools allow medical facilities to collect, store and manage patient data, including their medical history and lab results. Case management software also helps you decide which cases you want to prioritise and allows you to assign specific patients to nurses who are currently at work.

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