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Nurses often want to move ahead in their careers, and in order to do that, they need to learn more, understand more, and do more. One way to make this happen is to earn specialty certifications. Throughout the year, we’ll be giving you information about various certifications, what they mean, and how you can earn them.

First up: CCRN, CCRN-E, and CCRN-K.

According to Denise Buonocore, MSN, RN, ACNPC, CCNS, CCRN, CHFN, an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner for heart failure services at St. Vincent’s Multispecialty Group, St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, Connecticut and the chair of the national board of directors for the AACN Certification Corp.—the credentialing arm of the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN)—the CCRN certification program was founded in 1976. (Please note that the AACN Certification Corp. is a separate entity from the AACN.)

What do CCRN, CCRN-E, and CCRN-K stand for? While all of them are certifications, they are not abbreviations. So they aren’t short forms of any particular words and/or phrases.

“For more than 40 years, CCRN has been the hallmark specialty credential for nurses who provide direct care to acutely/critically ill adult, pediatric, or neonatal patients,” explains Buonocore. “Nurses interested in this certification may work in areas such as intensive care units, cardiac care units, combined ICU/CCUs, medical/surgical ICUs, trauma units, or critical care transport/flight. CCRN-E and CCRN-K are extensions of the CCRN certification program.”

Buonocore says that she decided to get certified because “I was fortunate that I had a few colleagues support and encourage me when I was considering taking my first certification exam. These were nurses who were CCRN certified and were well respected for their knowledge and skills within our unit. Their confidence in me and their encouragement inspired me to study and take the exam. In turn, I have paid their support forward, mentoring and encouraging several potential certificants through the years. That first certification was also a catalyst to further my education, eventually becoming a certified nurse practitioner and clinical nurse specialist.”

A CCRN-E is a credential for nurses introduced in 2007, initially as a certification renewal option. In 2011, it became an initial exam option. “The CCRN-E credential is for nurses who monitor and care for acutely/critically ill adult patients from a centralized or remotely-based tele-ICU location that is networked with the bedside via audiovisual communication and computer systems,” says Buonocore.

As for the CCRN-K, Buonocore says, “A growing number of acute and critical care nurses are shifting to roles where they influence patient outcomes by sharing their unique clinical knowledge and expertise rather than providing care directly. The CCRN-K certification program, launched in 2014, is for nurses who positively influence the care delivered to acutely/critically ill adult, pediatric or neonatal patients but do not primarily or exclusively provide direct care. These nursing knowledge professionals work in a multitude of roles, including educators, researchers, administrators, care coordinators and managers, and in a variety of settings, including hospitals, health networks and nursing schools.”

Buonocore answered additional questions about these three certifications.

How do certifications help nurses in their careers?

RN licensure measures entry-level competence. Certification validates specialty knowledge and experience. Although certification is not mandatory for practice in a specialty such as critical care, many nurses choose to become certified. Like many other professional credentials, nursing certification involves a willingness to test one’s knowledge and expertise against national standards of excellence. Some employers prefer to hire certified nurses, because they have demonstrated a high level of knowledge in their specialty through successful completion of a rigorous, psychometrically sound exam, which is based on a comprehensive study of practice.

Becoming certified helps position nurses for recognition and advancement, and it spurs a critical sense of confidence, empowerment, and pride in their achievement. Research has found that certified nurses believe they make decisions with greater confidence and feel more satisfied in their work.

One salary survey found that specialty certified nurses in critical care in the United States make on average of $18,000 more per year than their non-certified counterparts.

What do nurses need to do to attain CCRN and related credentials?

Applicants must have a current, unencumbered U.S. RN or APRN license, and each certification program has specific eligibility requirements based on verifiable practice hours. For example, a critical care nurse must provide direct care to critically ill patients for a minimum number of hours with a single patient population (adult, pediatric, or neonatal) to be eligible for the CCRN exam.

Specifically, for CCRN, the clinical practice eligibility requirements include 1,750 hours of direct care in the previous two years, with 875 of those hours accrued in the year preceding application. Alternatively, candidates may have completed 2,000 hours and a minimum of five years in direct care of acutely/critically ill patients, with 144 of those hours accrued in the year prior to applying. CCRN-E and CCRN-K have slightly different eligibility requirements. For all three certification programs, the majority of hours for eligibility must focus on critically ill patients.

Nurses considering certification have access to many exam preparation resources including handbooks, test plans, practice questions, and review courses available through AACN. The exams are administered via computer-based testing at over 300 locations across the United States.

Certified nurses validate their continuing knowledge of current practices in acute/critical care nursing through a renewal process that includes meeting continuing education and practice hour requirements. CCRN, CCRN-E, and CCRN-K certifications must be renewed every three years.


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