Clinical certification programs: Which are right for you?

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All clinicians — nurse practitioners, physician assistant and other allied health specialists — must obtain at least a minimum level of certification in order to be able to practice. But what exactly are those certifications, and why are they required? And what additional specialty certifications are available? Here's a snapshot of the many certification requirements and options available to clinicians at all stages of their careers.

“Certification means that you have met a benchmark,” Mary A. Bemker, RN, DSN, Psy S, director of the nursing program at Capella University in Minneapolis, Minn., said. “It is a signal to employers that you have met the minimal competencies.”

Richard C. Vause, Jr., DHSc, MPAS, DFAAPA, PA-C, program director of the PA program at Salus University in Elkins Park, Penn., agrees. “I recommend that PAs pass the PANCE exam, get certified and then spend a few years getting good at primary care. Hone the basic skills first, then you can move on to do almost anything.”

There are a number of different tools PA students can use to prepare for the PANCE exam, according to Vause, including numerous test-prep books, practice tests that can be found on the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants website and commercial products from test-prep companies like Kaplan.

Debbie Fox, RN, BSN, FNP-BC, a palliative care nurse in the Metropolitan Jewish Health System home-care program in New York City, explained that most family NPs are nationally board certified, but must also obtain a separate state licence that is linked to their RN license in order to practice.

“There is separate state credentialing for NPs who prescribe medications. The beauty of being nationally board certified is that it enables a nurse to practice in another state that has reciprocity agreements without having to obtain a separate license,” Fox said.

PAs and NPs may also be required to obtain additional certifications beyond the minimum, depending on specialty and practice setting. Most PAs and NPs working in the hospital setting must also maintain Basic Life Support certification as a minimum practice standard.

“BLS means you learn CPR, as well as how to use an automated external defibrillator and what to do with a choking patient, “ Jenifer B. Silverman, MS, RPA-C, a plastic surgery PA in New York City, said.

Additional certifications that may be required in the hospital setting can include Advanced Cardiac Life Support, Pediatric Advanced Life Support, infection control and how to spot signs of child abuse. “If you work in the ER or with trauma patients, you may also need an Advanced Trauma Life Support certification,” Silverman said.

PAs and NPs can also obtain additional specialty certifications. “Oftentimes you are expected to have additional certifications in specialty PA practices,” Michelle Dibase, PA-C, DFAAPA, a core faculty member at A.T. Still University, in Phoenix, Ariz., said, who also holds a diploma in dermatology practice from the Society of Dermatologic Physician Assistants.

Fox will also be sitting for the Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Nurse exam very soon. “It adds a certain credibility to my work,” she said.

There are also some more unusual certifications available, such as Aeronautical Physician Assistant certification and the Federal Aviation Administration Aeromedical Examiner certification for those clinicians interested in practicing aviation medicine — a specialty Vause himself practiced at one time.  “There are a lot of clinical areas that are critical to pilots, many of them vision and ear, nose and throat related,” Vause said. “The aeromedical certifications give you the additional training you need to work in aviation medicine.”

Amy B. Bernard, MS, BSN, RN-BC, director of continuing education at Western Schools, a nationally accredited continuing education provider, emphasized the importance of NPs obtaining additional certification for career advancement. “Obtaining certification is professionally rewarding and satisfying," she said. “With ongoing changes in the healthcare field, certification demonstrates to employers an advanced level of knowledge and skills in a specialty practice area.”

Jill Elaine Hughes is a freelance medical writer.

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