What is Nurse Certification?

Certification is a process by which a nongovernmental agency validates, based upon predetermined standards, an individual nurse’s qualifications for practice in a defined functional or clinical area of nursing.

Most certification programs are created, sponsored or affiliated with professional associations and trade organizations interested in raising standards. Certifications are earned through an assessment process and, in general, must be renewed periodically. Certification credentials are nationally recognized and portable, meaning the credential is accepted from one hospital to another.

Many nurses who choose a clinical specialty area of nursing become certified in that area, signifying that they possess expert knowledge. Registered nurses are not required to be certified in a certain specialty by law. State licensure provides the legal authority for an individual to practice professional nursing, while certification is voluntary, obtained through certifying organizations and validates knowledge, skills, abilities and experience in areas beyond the scope of RN licensure.

There is an exception in the case of advanced practice licensure (for nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, midwife, etc.) — a certification exam may be used as a proxy measure for APRN licensure or designation and therefore would not be voluntary, but a requirement for licensure.

Are AACN's Nurse Certification Programs Nationally Accredited?

AACN Certification Corporation validates the quality of its certification programs by maintaining full current accreditation from the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), the accreditation arm of the Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE). ICE is a US-based organization that helps certification bodies, primarily in healthcare, by providing them with information on the latest trends and issues of concern to practitioners and organizations focused on certification. NCCA's mission is to help ensure the health, welfare and safety of the public through the accreditation of certification programs that assess professional competence.

Are Acute Care and Critical Care Nurse Certifications Different?

AACN certifies nurses caring for acutely and critically ill patients. To best understand the difference between acutely ill versus critically ill, visualize patient care complexity on a continuum, with critically ill at the highest level of complexity and instability of that continuum. The critically ill patient’s life cannot be sustained without invasive therapeutic interventions.

The acutely ill patient would be at a lower level on the patient care complexity continuum. They are more stable, however still have the potential for becoming unstable. An acutely ill patient requires detailed observation or intervention, however not the advanced monitoring and support of the critically ill patient.

What Nurse Specialty Certifications Does AACN Offer?

AACN Certification Corporation seeks to provide credentialing programs that contribute to achieving desired health outcomes for patients and families as well as to advance the career of nursing worldwide. The five specialty certifications and two sub-specialty certifications offered by AACN are described below:

Critical Care Registered Nurse Certification

CCRN® certification is for RNs working at the bedside of acutely and/or critically ill patients. The clinical setting may include, but is not limited to ICUs, CCUs, emergency departments, trauma units, interventional radiology/cardiology units, or critical care transport/light. Separate exams are offered for nurses who care for adult, pediatric or neonatal patients.

Progressive Care Certified Nurse Certification

PCCN® certification is for progressive care nurses working at the bedside of acutely ill adult patients. Progressive care is how AACN collectively describes areas such as intermediate care units, direct observation units, stepdown units, telemetry units and transitional care units. PCCN certification is also appropriate for nurses who practice in cardiac catheterization labs and emergency departments.

Critical Care Registered Nurse e-ICU Certification

CCRN-ETM certification is an extension of the CCRN program for RNs who monitor and care for acutely and/or critically ill adult patients from a remote location. CCRN-Es work behind a camera in tele-ICUs (also known as virtual ICUs or e-ICUs). Eligibility for CCRN-E requires hours in a tele-ICU only or in a combination of tele-ICU and direct bedside care of acutely or critically ill adult patients.

Critical Care Clinical Nurse Specialist Certification

CCNS® certification is an entry-level advanced practice certification for nurses educated at the graduate level as clinical nurse specialists working with acutely and/or critically ill patients. CCNS may be used by nurses in some states to help them qualify for advanced practice nursing licensure. Separate exams are offered for nurses who care for adult, pediatric or neonatal patients.

Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Certification

ACNPC® certification is an entry-level advanced practice certification for nurses educated at the graduate level as acute care nurse practitioners to provide nursing care across the continuum of health services to meet the specialized physiologic and psychologic needs of adult patients with complex acute, critical and/or chronic health conditions. The ACNPC exam may be used in some states as a proxy measure for APRN licensure or designation.

Certified Nurse Manager and Leader Certification

Certified Nurse Manager and Leader (CNML) certification launched by the American Organization of Nurse Executives Credentialing Center (AONE-CC) and AACN gives nurse managers a way to validate their knowledge as they strive to excel in demanding roles carrying out complex leadership responsibilities that directly affect the quality of care to patients and families.

Cardiac Medicine Sub-Specialty Nurse Certification

Cardiac Medicine (CMC®) sub-specialty certification is for nurses who already have a nationally accredited clinical nursing specialty certification (such as CCRN, PCCN, CCRN-E, CCNS or ACNPC) and who subspecialize in caring for cardiac patients. The clinical settings may include but are not limited to: CCU, combined ICU/CCU, medical cardiology, heart failure clinics/home care, interventional cardiology and/or electrophysiology units.

Cardiac Surgery Sub-Specialty Nurse Certification

Cardiac Surgery (CSC®) sub-specialty certification is for nurses who already have a nationally accredited clinical nursing specialty certification (such as CCRN, PCCN, CCRN-E, CCNS or ACNPC) and who subspecialize in the care of cardiac surgery patients (within the first 48 hours post-operatively). Clinical settings may include, but are not limited to: cardiac surgery, cardiothoracic surgery, cardiovascular surgery and post-anesthesia recovery units.

Numerous Certification Organizations offer specialty certification for nurses in a variety of clinical specialties.