Certification vs. Accreditation vs. Licensure: What’s the Difference in Health Care? Blog Feature
Chris Zook

By: Chris Zook on December 13th, 2018

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

Health Science | National Healthcareer Association (NHA)

 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 some may use these terms 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 different ways.

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

Video: Certification vs. Accreditation vs. Licensure


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

What Is a Health Science Certification?


A certification requires an individual 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 — to vouch for a professional’s skills and competencies.

Then, that professional can take their certification to an employer as proof that they know how to do the job for which they’re applying.

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 re-take an assessment.

Additionally, it’s possible that 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.

It’s possible for employers to accept more than one form of certification as valid. But if most employers in your area endorse one certifying agency over the other, then it’s smart to learn about that certification first, as opposed to any others.

If one of your students wants to move to another area of the country after their education, then it’d be best for them to learn what kind of certification employers prefer in that region.

That can be a challenge. After all, the US has dozens of certification agencies that offer competing credentials.

That’s why it’s so important to research certifications (and agencies) for an area.

No matter what you have to research and do, the big 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 / or knowledge, certificates are written testimonies of validation, truth, or authenticity.

So while it’s possible someone can earn both certifications and certificates, they’re different concepts 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?


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, association, etc. Accreditation does not apply to an individual professional.

In education, accreditation is most often associated with post-secondary colleges or universities.

That’s only the tip of the iceberg, though.

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 your accreditations, you and your students don’t have to worry — they don’t apply to individual people.

However, when your students go looking for a job, they can 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.

The 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?


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

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.

However, licenses — unlike certifications — 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.

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

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

Depending on where you’re located, “licensure” may not be called “licensure” either.

Instead, people in your area may say “registration” or “registered.”

In health care, “licensed” and “registered” mean two different things. (An LPN is not the same job as an RN.)

But in professions like architecture, someone can say they’re a “licensed architect” or a “registered architect” without splitting hairs between the two terms.

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?


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.

However, 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 a position at an accredited institution. 

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.

But that’s easier said than done.

How are you supposed to prepare the next generation of health care professionals when you have outdated textbooks, students at different learning levels, and administrators holding you to sky-high standards?

The answer lies in HealthCenter21!  

Prepping Your Students for Credentials with Digital Curriculum


HealthCenter21 is a digital curriculum that’s packed with pre-made, up-to-date resources to help you teach students to the best of your abilities.

It includes interactive lessons, customizable assessments, classroom management settings, automatic grading, and tons of other built-in features.

With it, you can streamline the processes of planning, teaching, and assessing, giving you your personal time back from teaching and empowering your students to grow into their future careers.

You’re not the first teacher to look for digital resources either!

In fact, we have dozens of stories from teachers just like you who used HealthCenter21 to improve their classrooms, help students learn, and even improve certification rates!

Want to learn more?

Read their stories for yourself!

Read Case Studies >


About Chris Zook

Chris Zook is a contributing author to the AES blog. He enjoys everything about online marketing, data science, user experience, and corgis.