Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL)?

According to the AACN, a CNL is a nurse with a leadership concentration in their MSN. CNLs play a role in improving patient care and engage with clinicians to make a difference in the current healthcare system.  After earning an MSN with a CNL concentration, or a CNL Post-Master’s certificate, a nurse will have the credential of CNL given by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).

What does a CNL do?

As an acting leader of the healthcare delivery setting, the CNL works with a group of healthcare professionals to integrate the latest evidence-based care tactics for a cohort of patients. The CNL works bedside to ensure that each patient is benefiting from treatment and has the authority to make changes where necessary.

Is there a need for the CNL role in the healthcare system?

There is a demand from healthcare leaders to have someone formally trained in the CNL or a similar program. There is a need for changes

to happen in order to improve patient outcomes, and the AACN believes that the creation of the CNL role will contribute to the improvements in the education and care deliveries of healthcare professionals.  CNLs are experts in promoting critical thinking and innovation to constructively manage and promote a team-based approach to care.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of medical and health leaders is expected to grow by 22 percent from 2010 to 2020, faster than the average for all other occupations.

While the CNL role is new and direct information is not available, data shows that the CNL role may be a contributing factor.  In 2010, there were 597 total candidates to take the CNL exam, while in 2015 there were 1080 total candidates.  The number of total candidates nearly doubled in five years, which shows the increase in demand.

What education level is required to be a CNL?

At least an MSN with a concentration in Clinical Nurse Leadership or a similar program. This is because a CNL needs to be a resource for their nursing team, and the MSN assures that a nurse is clinically competent to do that.  There are also Post-Master’s Certificate programs that will prepare any nurse already carrying an MSN degree for the CNL exam.

Is there a way to become a CNL with only a BSN degree?

No. CNL must have a Master’s degree level of education.

Will CNL replace nurses with only BSN degrees?

No, the CLN position is more advanced and has more responsibilities than a regular BSN. A nurse with a BSN has the ability to work as an RN, and while a CNL does too, the CNL degree is for nurses who want to do more. This role includes overseeing care coordination, providing direct patient care in complex situations, putting evidence-based practice into action, ensuring patients benefit from the latest innovations in care delivery, evaluating patient outcomes, assessing cohort risks, and having the decision-making authority to change care plans when necessary.

How is a CNL different from a Clinical Nurse Specialist or other advanced practice nurse?

APRN’s responsibilities are clearly defined, and Advanced Practice Nurses are more specialized than CNLs. CNLs do not have a defined area of practice, while APNs do. Together they bring a complementary approach to the nursing practice.

Does CNL have a new legal scope of practice and license?

In 2007, the Commission on Nurse Certification (CNC) was created as an oversight for the certification of CNLs.

Who is eligible for the CNL Certification Examination?

Nurse writing

Only students who graduate from a CNL Master’s program or those in their last semester of a CNL program that meets the following AACN criteria are eligible to take the exam. Nurses are required to pass both the CNL Certification Exam and the NCLEX Exam to receive their CNL license.

How do I arrange the Certification Examination for my CNL program graduates?

To take the exam, all students must undergo an application process. Once a verification email is received, the student will be allowed to take the exam.

Is CNL connected to the practice doctorate in nursing?

To be a CNL, a nurse must have an MSN and be a part of an AACN CNL endorsed program. While this program is not connected to the practice of doctorate in nursing, they both complement each other because one can’t pursue a doctorate education without having a master’s degree first.


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