Now’s your chance to switch from clinical work to health care policy

Making this transition is easier than you think. Here’s how you can go from one-on-one patient care to shaping outcomes for many in no time.

Now’s your chance to switch from clinical work to health care policy

Ever find yourself wondering if you could be doing more to change the way health care is delivered—not just at your organization, but also all across your state or even the country. “Health care policy” is an umbrella term that encompasses an approach to how health care is administered broadly. So if you’re sick of seeing yourself in scrubs, maybe health care policy is the career for you.

Take the career of Lisa Simpson, president and CEO of AcademyHealth, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. After two clinical residencies in the 1980s, Simpson, a pediatrician, left the clinical field to focus solely on policy work. By 1999, she’d become the deputy director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a post she would hold for four years. Today, she’s the head of a nationally recognized health care policy organization.

“So much of children’s health is driven by outside forces, and I wanted to understand them in a broader context,” she says.

Does Simpson’s career track sound like one you’d like to pursue? If you’re a clinician now, follow these steps to make the transition to health care policy.

Figure out what you’re getting yourself into

As you make the transition, prepare for a different pace—both in terms of how you spend your day and the time it takes to see the fruits of your labor.

Some clinicians find that they struggle at first with working in an office setting. Just having to sit all day is a drastic adjustment for those switching from clinical to policy work. “You’re transitioning from patient care to computer care,” says Sharon Morgan, a senior policy adviser at the American Nurses Association, based in Silver Spring, Maryland. “If the idea of spending an inordinate time in front of a computer is not your cup of tea, this is not the switch you want to make.”

Catherine Ruhl, director of women’s health programs at the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses, echoes that sentiment. People who work in clinical positions know what they’re supposed to do when they get to work, she says, and it can be disorienting to work in policy and advocacy jobs that don’t have the immediacy of clinical work.

Understand the policy ecosystem

A wide variety of organizations contribute to health care policy, which means you have a lot of choices as to where you can work. These organizations include government agencies, nonprofits and even private-sector employers.

Similarly, there are a wide variety of jobs available across many skillsets.

“When it comes to policy, doctors might think about lobbying and action,” Simpson says, “but there’s this whole other ecosystem of people who are informing the policy process.” For example, jobs in this sector include researchers or research scientists, policy writers and public relations experts.

Expand your education and skills

Your clinical education is valuable, but let’s face it, for some of the jobs out there in policy, you might have to go back to school.

“I had committed to getting a master’s in public health—not that I think you need one specifically in public health, but you need training in the bigger context of health care,” Simpson says. That training could consist of courses on the legislative process or specific policy initiatives, for example.

Also, if you want to work in policy, brush up on your communications skills. “Understand that when you’re doing this work, you have to be able to speak and write correctly and articulate your position in a concise manner,” Morgan says. It helps to be savvy when it comes to social media and you should also know how to get a message across in 30 seconds or less, Morgan says, adding: “You have to be able to make a sound bite.”

Formal education aside, getting active in an association can also help you learn more about policy initiatives. If policy work interests you, Simpson recommends participating in a professional society that applies to your position. Most professional associations have a federal or state government affairs committee, which is a good place to start to learn about policy, she says.

Maintain your clinical qualifications

Even after you switch to policy work, make the effort to maintain your clinical skills and credentials. There’s an advantage to saying “as a practicing doctor or nurse, I’ve seen...” when you’re making a case, Simpson says.

Staying active in your clinical field can also serve as a safety net, says Tom Staiger, medical director at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. “If the career path people switch to doesn’t work out, it’s a whole lot easier to continue clinical practice if you’ve stayed active,” he says. If you’re out of the clinical for field for more than two years, employers are likely to require some retraining.

Be patient—and enjoy the ride

So you realize it’s going to be different and you’ll face new challenges in policy. That’s OK. Give yourself time to adjust while also making efforts to beef up your professional support network. Ruhl recommends intentionally connecting with other clinicians in similar nonclinical roles. “Early on, when I took this job, a nurse midwife who became a friend was working for the American College of Nurse-Midwives, and she said, ‘Let’s have coffee sometime—there are so few of us who are nurse midwives but are not working at the bedside, and we need to stick together.’ And she was right. That was helpful to me.”

And while you may be used to seeing the results of your work immediately in a clinical setting, policy work rarely offers such quick changes. “Sometimes it might be almost hidden—certain words in legislation, or changes in how a program is run,” Simpson says. “It takes years, and sometimes it’s hard to quantify, but you’re making an impact on millions of people.”