Nurses constitute the largest health care workforce in most countries. An estimated 35 million nurses make up the greater part of the global health workforce . Nurses interact closely with patients and their families and often accompany patients around the clock in all sectors of health care. This gives nurses a broad appreciation of health needs, of how factors in the environment affect the health situation for clients, their families and communities and of how people respond to different strategies and services. Nurses command expert knowledge based on their education and experience that could contribute positively towards improving all spheres of health care. ICN  reiterates that nurses can make a major contribution in promoting and shaping effective health policy because they closely interact with clients, gaining an appreciation of the health needs of the population and factors that influence these health needs.
The purpose of this study was to build consensus among nurse leaders’ on factors that facilitate or deter their participation in health policy development from the East African context. Policy in the context of this paper refers to the principles that govern a chosen course of action or inaction towards attainment of goals which influence the interest of the public . Health policies are guidelines, directives or principles pertaining to the health sector that govern the action or inaction that influence the health of the population .
International context on nurses’ participation in health policy
National health policies impact on nursing profession and health care. Studies reviewed from USA, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, revealed that national health policy reforms were often related to budget cuts. These reforms resulted in downsizing nurse staffing, and, in turn, created ripple effects on nurses and patient care. The impact largely took the form of negative consequences for nurses and patients in terms of: decreased staffing, increased workload, decreased job satisfaction, job insecurity and decreased quality and quantity of patient care, growth in numbers of unlicensed personnel, and ethical dilemmas [5–8]. Some positive effects, such as nurses becoming more assertive and gaining autonomy, ensued .
Nurses demonstrate some degree of political participation, although their level of political participation is restricted. Politics in this context is defined as striving to share power or to influence the distribution of power among groups within the state . Political activity refers to being part of groups and participating in activity to influence health policy. In studies undertaken in the USA [9–12], results indicated that most nurses participated in political activities and thought that people like them could influence government activities. Conversely, Chan and Cheng’s  study in Hong Kong found that political activism was insufficient and disagreed that nurses had the power to influence government policy. Furthermore, a more recent study conducted by Kunaviktikul et al. , explored involvement of nurses, those in hospital based clinical nurses and national nurse leaders, in health policy in Thailand. Reported findings indicated that the majority of the former were not involved in national health policy development. Nurse leaders’ were not involved in policy formulation or modification stages but were involved in the policy implementation stage. These findings suggest that whilst nurses are not apolitical, they appear to be at various levels of political engagement in different countries. There is no clear consensus on nurses’ political efficacy in relation to whether or not they believe they are able to influence government health policy.
Numerous factors influence nurses’ ability to be politically active in influencing health policy development, such as finding needed time and possessing relevant knowledge and interest about how political issues affect health care and the nursing profession [11–15]. Historically, nursing has suffered from a poor public image that it has found difficult to cast off [16–18]. For example, Florence Nightingale’s vision and influence at the national health policy level completely changed society’s views of nursing . Nursing, however, has not since been able to sustain this influence at policy level, and the image of nursing has remained low compared to other professions such as medicine. Moreover, medical technological advances and medical and curative dominance within health care has moved nurses’ focus from preventive and promotive care to individual care and cure. This has resulted in significant withdrawal of nursing from social and political activism and in the lessening of the reputation of nurses as a social change agent; as a result, there has been a loss in nursing power as regards policy making . Although the need for political action and policy influence has been recognized, nursing education has been slow to respond to this call . The preparation imparted by nursing education, does not adequately equip nurses with the knowledge and skills necessary for involvement in policy development [21–23]).
Studies reviewed reveal that it is possible for contemporary nurses to influence health policy. Certain factors can enhance nurses’ ability to participate in the policy development process. Factors include: being involved and gaining experience in policy development, having role models, being educated and knowledgeable about health systems and policy development process, political activism, conducting research to expand knowledge, being supported by professional organizations and developing leadership skills [13, 24–27]. When nurses are involved and successfully influence health policy development, there are clear benefits to the patient, the profession and the nurse.
Nurses’ involvement in health policy development ensures that health care is safe, of a high quality, accessible and affordable . Nurses have made progress in political participation and they exert influence in health policy development in some industrialized countries such as the United States of America (USA) and the United Kingdom (UK). In studies conducted by Latter and Courtenay (2004), While and Biggs (2004) and Bradley and Nolan (2007) in the USA and UK indicate that nurses’ involvement in health policy development and reform positively influences health care. These studies indicated that when nurses participated in policy development they were able to make valuable contributions and positively influence areas that include: access to health services; suicide prevention in adolescents; development of guidelines for the care of pregnant women and their children; child abuse policy; authorizing nurses to prescribe medication within the framework of the Nurse Prescribers Formulary (NPF); and improving continence services. Whilst there is a gap in literature with regards to the impact of these policies on patient care some literature from the UK with regards to Nurse prescribing indicates that: patients were generally satisfied, received quicker treatment, nurses’ experienced enhanced job satisfaction, nurses perceived enhanced quality of their practice, and skills, enhanced nurse self-esteem, enhanced autonomy and enhanced professional role [28–30]. These studies indicate that nurses’ influence on policy can have a positive impact in this regard.
African context on nurse participation in health policy
In the African context, a woman’s life is complicated by with environmental, socioeconomic and psychological factors such as poverty, illiteracy, laborious domestic work, disease and abuse that are debilitating and unfair . Confounding these circumstances is the traditional patriarchal system in which the decision-makers are men in the household. These factors and others contribute to the comparatively lower status of women in East Africa. The patriarchal social order also is reflected in the overall health care system ; Health care is not gender neutral. In a study that was conducted in South Africa by Van Der Merwe , the author concluded that, “Nurses as women within the traditional African setting at home were considered to be different, separate and not equal to men”. Patriarchal forces extensively affect the nursing workforce, which is constituted mostly of women . Gendered social ideals have significant implications for the roles, responsibilities, and capabilities of individuals . Nurses and nursing image are inherently linked to the dynamics that affect women.
The majority of the nurses in the East African Region are educated at the diploma level as an entry point into the profession; this level of education renders them less educated than other health care professionals [35, 36]. Nursing education mainly focuses on clinical skills and theory related to patient care and management, not on leadership development or policy issues [35, 36]. Access to higher education at the tertiary level is limited and expensive.
Organizational structures within which the majority of nurses are positioned and have functioned, particularly in the East African context, are bureaucratic. Policies, power and decisions are vested in the top level managers of the organization, whereas, the lower levels are mainly involved in implementation of those decisions [26, 37, 38]. There are few nurses, despite their being the largest workforce in health care, represented in senior management; nurses in these positions often adopt the ethos of senior management and represent management values rather than nursing issues or values . Interestingly, there also is a higher proportion of male nurses in senior management positions compared to the proportion of males in the profession . Workplace conditions for nurses commonly discourage participation in policy development. In a significant African study conducted by Phaladze  who investigated the role of nurses in the Human Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS) policy process in Botswana, concluded that the majority of the nurses were aware of the national HIV/AIDS policy. A small minority, however, were involved in the policy development process, mainly in the policy adoption, implementation and evaluation stages. The reasons for non-involvement included lack of confidence in nurses’ ability to competently participate in policy decisions and lack of being proactive towards issues related to HIV/AIDs. This situation is evident in the Kenyan context where a study conducted by Evans and Ndirangu  found that nurses were excluded from HIV/AIDs health policy development, decisions were made in a top down fashion, and nursing involvement was limited to implementing health policies.
In summary, review of the literature reveals that there are interrelated and complex factors that influence and contribute to limited nurses’ participation in health policy development. Nurses face challenges in being involved in health policy development at the grassroots level, as well as at the government level. Nurses believe that they are excluded and are not part of the health policy development process and that they are not present in large enough numbers to make a difference. Other major factors acting as barriers to participation include inadequate political and policy development skills, lack of status of women that also shapers the image of nursing, lack of education and lack of supportive organizational structures. However, research studies reveal that when nurses are involved and successfully influence health policy development, there are benefits to health care delivery. There are factors which could facilitate nurses’ participation in this regard include: effective leadership, political savvy, education, knowledge and understanding the health policy development process.
Whilst there is some literature from the developed world examining factors that influence nurses’ and their leaders’ participation in health policy development, there is limited literature from the developing world, particularly from Africa, and specifically the East African context. This paper reports part of a larger study that aimed to: “build consensus on factors that act as facilitators to nurse leaders’ participation in health policy development in East Africa” and “build consensus on factors that act as barriers to nurse leaders’ participation in health policy development in East Africa”.