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ICN has a long history in regulation, having been created in 1899 to ensure high standards of nursing education and practice globally. Its founders believed that to have a recognised system of education and a method for the controlling nursing was needed. The concept of universal standards was promulgated as ICN reasoned that principles governing nursing education and practice should be the same in every country because the need for nursing services is universal and the same, wherever it is being given. Thus, establishing higher standards for education and practice was a goal for international nursing from the beginning of ICN’s life.
From the 1950s to the 1980s ICN discharged its obligation with regard to regulation through supporting nursing legislation in various jurisdictions by periodic studies, seminars, and producing publications on the subject. However, the efforts to reform regulation were intensified in the early 1980s as regulatory barriers posed by many of its members' nursing regulatory systems were jeopardising the effective use of nurses in implementing primary health care (PHC). As regulation is fundamental to the identity, structure and type of services a professional can offer, the way nursing is regulated can either facilitate or impede its ability to remain relevant and its capacity to offer needed services. Consequently, ICN commissioned an international study of nursing regulation, and the conclusions of the study greatly influenced the position on regulation adopted by ICN in 1985. This position was widely disseminated through an international project with 86 participating countries, and has since continued to be seen as guide for nurses seeking to establish or reform their regulatory system.  Apart from a review and update in 1997, this position has remained ICN policy to the present date.
Parallel to ICN's regulatory work over the past two decades, the World Health Organization has continued to work with governments to initiate or reform nursing professional regulation. This included preparing guidelines,, which acknowledged and reinforced ICN position in regulation, and using ICN nurse consultants to assist countries in regulatory reform.
In the late 1990s ICN more clearly established regulation as one of the organisation’s three pillars.
 Dr Margretta Madden Styles carried the study. The results were published by ICN in The Report on the Regulation of Nursing: A Report on the Present, A Position for the Future, Geneva, ICN, 1986.
 International Council of Nurses, Nursing Regulation: Final Report of a Worldwide Project, Geneva, Author, 1992.
 International Council of Nurses, ICN on Regulation: Towards 21st Century Models, Geneva, Author, 1997.
 Storey, M, Roemer, R., Macglacas, A.M, Riccard E.A.P., Guidelines for Regulatory Changes in Nursing Education and Practice to Promote Primary Health Care, WHO/EDC/88.194, Geneva. WHO, 1988.
 World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe, Nursing in Action, WHO Regional Publication, European Series, No 48, Copenhagen, Author, 1993.
 World Health Organization Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean and Regional Office for Europe, Nursing and Midwifery: A Guide to Professional Regulation, EMRO Technical Publications Series 27, Cairo, Author, 2002