March 19th is Certified Nurses Day, the time to specifically honor nurses who have earned certifications. According to the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, more than 768,917 nurses in the United States and Canada held certifications in 2016 (so said data collected by the American Board of Nursing Specialties).

Ever wonder why you might think about earning a certification? We asked Denise Buonocore, MSN, RN, APRN, ACNPC, ANP-BC, CCNS, CCRN, CHFN, an acute care nurse practitioner for Heart Failure Services at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, Connecticut and the Chair-Elect of the AACN Certification Corporation board of directors for her thoughts on the matter.

What follows is an edited version of our Q&A.

DeniseHow long have you been in the nursing field, and what certifications do you hold?

I’ve been a nurse for 38 years, with 25 of those years as an advanced practice nurse. I first became CCRN certified after working as an RN in critical care for two years. After completing graduate school and a post-master’s certificate program, I took certification exams for adult nurse practitioner (ANP-BC), acute care nurse practitioner (ACNPC), and clinical nurse specialist (CCNS). My subspecialty is heart failure, so I felt it was important to become heart failure certified (CHFN).

Why do you think it’s important for nurses to get certifications? What does it do for them? For the field?

It is important to become certified because it demonstrates to you, patients and families, and employers and teammates that you have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to meet national standards. Becoming a certified nurse is a mark of distinction and demonstrates excellence. Your RN license demonstrates entry-level competency. Certification validates specialty knowledge. Many employers—especially those on an excellence journey such as Magnet or Beacon—look to hire certified nurses or expect that nurses will become certified as part of the organization’s efforts to build an environment of professionalism and culture of retention.

On a personal level, being certified shows your deep commitment to your profession, lifelong learning, and personal improvement. By becoming certified, nurses may position themselves for appropriate recognition and advancement. As a certified nurse, you are a role model for professional practice and commitment to your team members, and it demonstrates dedication to patient safety and improving patient outcomes.

What’s the difference between board certification and being certified in a specialty?

Board certification is certification that meets the accepted criteria for state licensure. Examples of this are advanced practice exams. Specialty certifications are not required for licensure, but are important in demonstrating the knowledge in that specialty area.

How do you know you’re ready to become certified?

Start by reviewing the qualifying criteria for the certification you want to achieve. Most exams have a clinical practice requirement in the area of specialty before you can apply to take the exam. Then assess where you are on your personal learning journey in your specialty. I believe it is never too early to begin to study for the exam. I think the best part is finding out what you don’t know or what you need to improve on, formulating a plan for learning new information, and then applying new learnings in your clinical practice.

Do you need additional education to become certified? What are the requirements to apply?

RN specialty certifications such as CCRN and PCCN, or subspecialty certifications such as CMC and CSC, have core curriculum knowledge requirements in addition to practice hour requirements. There are many ways for you to gain this knowledge—attending conferences such as AACN’s National Teaching Institute & Critical Care Exposition, taking a live or online review course, reading review books or articles, and taking practice exams to build on your current knowledge and build confidence.

If you want to be certified as an advanced practice nurse (ACNPC-AG, ACCNS-AG, ACCNS-P, ACCNS-N) you will need to graduate from an accredited graduate-level advanced practice education program, and meet specific curriculum and clinical practice criteria to take the exam. The exam qualifying criteria can be found in the certification section of AACN’s website.

What does it take to maintain your certification?

Passing your certification exam is not the end of the road but rather the beginning. Recertification is just as important as your initial certification. It is the mark of true long-term commitment to lifelong learning and improvement. Each certification has specific renewal criteria. Most certifications require a combination of continuing education and professional activities that demonstrate your continuing competency.

What have been the greatest rewards for you that happened because you earned your certification?

The greatest reward for me personally in becoming certified was the validation of my knowledge and a deep sense of achievement and commitment. After I passed the CCRN exam, I remember feeling more confident in my ability to care for critically ill patients. I also felt connected to the community of certified nurses and potential certified nurses. I was fortunate that I had a few colleagues support and encourage me when I was considering taking my first exam. In turn, I have paid that forward to mentor and encourage the next group of potential certificants. That first certification was a catalyst to further my education eventually becoming a nurse practitioner and clinical nurse specialist.

What would you say to someone considering becoming certified in any field?

Do your homework! Look at the test plans, set aside specific time to study, determine how you want to study, and sign up for the exam. If you set up a test date, you are more likely to work toward it. Just do it!

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Michele Wojciechowski

Michele Wojciechowski is an award-winning writer and author of the humor book Next Time I Move, They’ll Carry Me Out in a Box.

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