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Health Science | National Healthcareer Association (NHA)

Certification vs. Accreditation vs. Licensure: What’s the Difference in Health Care?

January 3rd, 2022 | 7 min. read

Brad Hummel

Brad Hummel

Coming from a family of educators, Brad knows both the joys and challenges of teaching well. Through teaching experience of his own, he’s experienced both firsthand. As a writer for AES, Brad’s goal is to help teachers empower their students through listening to educators’ concerns and creating content that answers their most pressing questions about career and technical education.

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 Certification, accreditation, and licensure are all professional development opportunities for students and health care workers who want to improve their knowledge and skills in the health care industry.

While these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, each term means something different from the others. Certification, accreditation, and licensure can all help health science students advance in their careers, but in very distinct ways.

In this blog, we’ll take a look at each of these terms to discuss what each term means, how students can earn them, and why they’re valuable.

We’ll start with the most common credential for health science: Certification.

What Is a Health Science Certification?

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A health science certification requires individuals to volunteer themselves to be evaluated by a third-party, non-governmental agency.

This agency sets eligibility requirements for volunteers to either join or to be evaluated. Then, the individual has to pass some form of assessment to be considered “certified” by the agency.

Certifications come from well-established organizations — like the National Healthcareer Association — that vouch for a professional’s skills and competencies. Professionals can take their certifications to an employer as evidence that they are qualified for a particular healthcare profession.

Many certifying agencies also require individuals to maintain a certain level of education or career progression to maintain their certification. Other agencies may only issue certifications for a brief window of time before requiring someone to retake an assessment.

Sometimes, multiple organizations offer certifications for the same skill sets or knowledge. This may result in some employers of the United States preferring one certifying agency over another, even though two certifying agencies offer the same opportunity on paper. That’s why it’s important for both teachers and students to know about the preferred certifications in their area.

Some employers accept more than one form of certification as valid. But if most employers in your area endorse one certifying agency over the other, you'll likely want to go with the more popular agency.

Because the US has dozens of certification agencies offering competing credentials, it's also important to learn what certifications are preferred whenever moving from one area or region  to another.

What is the Difference Between Certifications and Certificates?

No matter what you have to research and do, an important point to remember about certifications is that they’re owned by the certification agency. This matters because it’s a main difference between certifications and certificates.

While certifications are endorsements of skills and knowledge, certificates are written testimonies of validation, truth, or authenticity.

So while it’s possible someone can earn both certifications and certificates, they’re unique credentials that apply to different parts of a profession.

With that in mind, let’s talk about another big part of professional development — accreditation.

What Is Health Science Accreditation?

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Accreditation is the process of an agency recognizing that a separate organization has met certain standards and criteria.

The main difference here is that an accreditation applies to an entire company, institution, or association. Accreditation does not apply to an individual professional.

In education, accreditation is most often associated with post-secondary colleges or universities, who are usually accredited by regional agencies like the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

That’s only the tip of the iceberg, though, when it comes to these credentials.

Small businesses, non-profits, community activism groups, and more can all earn accreditation from umbrella organizations that are recognized in a certain industry.

Most often, accreditation applies to safety, efficiency, and validity. High-risk workplaces like distribution centers or manufacturers can get safety accreditations from OSHA. Non-profits can earn accreditation from third-party organizations that set ethical, financial, and representational standards.

In some cases, third-party accreditors can gain so much influence in a sector that their approval is a de facto requirement for an organization to function or a business to get customers!

So when it comes to accreditations, you and your students don’t have to worry — they don’t apply to individual people. However, when looking for a job, your students should keep accreditation in mind.

Accreditation is essentially an endorsement that a company has met high standards of ethics, professionalism, and more. While those standards may be “normal” for lots of companies, commonality doesn’t lessen the importance of becoming accredited.

Organizations that care enough to get accredited are demonstrating their commitment to a purpose — one that goes beyond making money.

Learn More: What to Know About Accreditation for Your Health Science Program

What Is Health Science Licensure?

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Licensure is a process by which a government-associated agency gives individuals express permission to practice an occupation. Licensure acts as an endorsement that an individual has met minimum competency standards.

Licensure is perhaps most common in the health care industry, where doctors, nurses, and a variety of other professions are tightly regulated to ensure individual proficiency and public safety.

To become licensed, a professional has to meet certain eligibility requirements and pass at least one assessment, much like earning a certification. A license may also have stipulations about ongoing learning, renewal, and revocation.

Unlike certifications, licenses are often issued on a state-wide level, as opposed to third-party organizations. Licensing procedures and rules may also differ among smaller jurisdictions within a certain state.

Moreover, different employers may have higher standards than a licensing entity, depending on the type of professional they want to employ.

It’s also important to stress than non-governmental organizations do not offer licensure. Third parties can be a part of the licensing process, as dictated by a state or local government, but they’re not permitted to issue licenses directly.

What Is the Difference Between Licensure and Registration?

Depending on where you’re located, people might refer to "licensure" as "registration" or being "registered."

In professions like architecture, someone could be a “licensed architect” or a “registered architect” without splitting hairs between the two terms.

But in healthcare, “licensed” and “registered” mean two different things. A Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) is not same as a Registered Nurse.

To tell the difference between the two, you have to consider the context of the speaker.

If they’re coming from a medical perspective, then someone almost certainly means “licensed” or “registered,” if they use one of those words specifically.

If they’re coming from a less regulated industry — like barbering — a professional may say they’re a licensed or registered barber with the state.

With all of that said about certification, accreditation, and licensure, we have one big question to answer: Which one is most important?

What’s Most Important: Certification, Accreditation, or Licensure?

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When it comes to these three credentials, there’s not one that’s “better” or “more important” than another. It all boils down to what you — or your students — want to do:

  • If you have students who want to be nursing assistants, then they need to pursue a CNA certification.
  • If your students want to become nurses themselves, then they’ll have to pursue a nursing license of some kind.
  • If they’re seeking accreditation, then you know you have some vocabulary to discuss!

Still, students can work for an accredited organization after they’ve earned the professional credentials that empower them to do what they want with their lives.

It's important to remember these credentials aren't mutually exclusive. A student who earns a certification can also go on to earn a license and vise versa, and both credentials can help students earn positions at accredited institutions. 

As a result, your students have a rich spread of opportunities in health care, giving them countless pathways and avenues to pursue to find the career of their dreams.

Take Steps to Prepare Your Students for Credentials

Now that you know the difference between certification, accreditation, and licensure as it applies to health careers, you can better prepare your students for earning the credentials that they need to be successful.

But you might still be wondering: what is the next step I should take to make sure my students are ready?

As a health science curriculum provider, we know that many of your students will eventually pursue licensure in nursing and other health professions. But chances are that most of them will want to earn certifications first to begin working in the field right after high school.

In that case, you’ll want to take a closer look at how to prepare students for health science certifications.

In this article, you’ll learn about six steps you can follow to get your students ready for their certification exams, so you can feel more confident in helping your students take the next step in their careers.

Discover How to Prepare Your Students for Certification Success