Monday, May 12, 2014

The Value of Professional Certification

Let me start by saying that I am a firm supporter of specialty certification or credential by examination. Certification bodies and professional associations will provide long, enticing lists of all the reasons that you should become certified. Even though you will likely not experience all or even many of the cited perks, there are several reasons you should become certified. The greatest benefits are less tangible than you might imagine.

As a new-graduate nurse, I was lucky to gain entry into the gnarliest ICU in the region. It was affectionately known as the “Meat Grinder” for its ability to chew up and spit out many of the nurses that attempted to work there. I was honored and terrified.

Certification had been on my radar since my senior year and my desire only intensified when I became licensed as a registered nurse. Time and experience are the elements that you cannot rush and I have always lacked patience. Even though I was consumed with learning how to become a nurse and how to negotiate the often torrid waters of unit politics and culture, I kept my sights on the day I would become eligible to sit for the CCRN exam.

Approximately 18 months into my new career, I became eligible. This is a critical period, when the new nurse is beginning to gain the experience necessary to start putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

Certification was an important element of my five-year-plan, so I set a date, registered for the CCRN exam, and began preparing diligently. The time pressure imposed by the three month timeline provided the extra motivation needed to review the fundamentals and systematically work through nearly every known injury or physiologic compromise. It also allowed sufficient time to spend with the “soft skills,” so important in nursing.

I took great pride in first becoming certified. It was a milestone and part of the process of creating future professional options. It is true that I overestimated the professional clout and financial reward, I would gain. This is not the fault of certification or the associations and certification bodies that offer them.

Hospital and unit culture are important factors in determining the value placed on professional certification. I have lost count of how many senior nursing staff members have said “it is just a test” or “it is just a way for the associations to make money.” Courageous cultures celebrate, provide incentive, and recognize the value gained through hiring and creating certified nurses. Sadly, many cultures do not see this. Some fear making the non-certified nurse feel bad, while others cite staffing issues when a patient or their family request a certified nurse over one that is not.

Credential by examination is a common requirement for entry into advanced or expanded roles in nursing. It is an excellent tool for measuring a reasonable level of achievement and knowledge attainment. My dream since contemplating a career change and pursuing nursing was to become a rotary-wing (helicopter) flight/critical care transport nurse.

Preparing for the exams allowed me to revisit the topics I had learned in that first critical care course, but now with the advantage of the tangible framework of real-world experience. I was able to solidify the allusive concepts that had remained a mystery. I believe that the process of obtaining specialty certification was instrumental in shaping the attitudes and level of commitment that has allowed me to carve out a path of excellence and realize my dream.

Ultimately, I found the greatest benefit of certification. I became a more confident, more professional, and more effective critical care nurse.

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