As the nursing landscape presents changes and challenges, new positions attempt to counter these difficulties and help both nurses and patients. The Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL) is one of these positions.

A CNL is a nurse who participated in a CNL postgraduate master’s program and then received a CNL license. They are nursing leaders who manage care for a specific group of patients within a ward. A CNL steps away from the bedside role and instead manages patient care to help ensure the outcomes are the best possible.

Are you ready to take the next step in your nursing career and think a CNL license might be for you? Keep reading for everything you need to know about CNL licensing.

What Is a Clinical Nurse Leader?

A Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL) is a clinical leader and nurse who focuses on improving the quality of patient care and patient outcomes. In addition to nursing duties, they focus on outcomes like:

  • Transitions of Care
  • Quality Improvement
  • Care Coordination
  • Risk Assessment
  • Implementing Evidence-Based Best Practices
  • Interprofessional Communication
  • Team Leadership

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) developed the CNL role as a way to create a position that directly works to improve patient care and prepare nurses to be leaders as the healthcare system changes.

When developing the role, the AACN and two task forces worked from several years of research. This included discussions with both nurses and other key stakeholders to find a way to create a credential that satisfies the evolving needs of nurses.

Candidates who are best suited to the CNL role are often those who are lifelong learners and career nurses who want to improve outcomes for all patients. CNLs also possess strong leadership qualities for leading both unit teams and defining their role in interprofessional teams and within the organization.

What Does a CNL Do at Work?

A CNL’s role in their healthcare organization is to oversee the integration of care for a specific group of patients. In complex situations, the CNL may also actively provide care.

As a CNL, you will spend much of your time working with patient data. You collect patient outcome data and evaluate it to do things like assess cohort risk and change care plans when required.

You also spend time working with an interprofessional team to ensure the nursing care is well-integrated into the plan informed by general physicians, clinical nurse specialists, pharmacists, nurse practitioners, and social workers.

Is the CNL a Manager?

Working as a CNL doesn’t mean you move into a management or administrative role. Instead, you become a leader and an active member of interdisciplinary and interprofessional teams.

What Education Do You Need?

The position is a monitored one that requires nurse candidates to achieve a master’s degree. The AACN requires postgraduate study as part of the training because the role requires an advanced level of clinical competence in addition to direct care.

Your CNL-affiliated master’s differs from other degrees like the APN because it doesn’t provide specialist education or focus on a defined practice area.

To complete your education, you must apply and enroll in an eligible CNL program. You can search the full directory on the AACN member program directory by entering “CNL” in the “Programs Offered” search bar.

Alternatively, you can use this tool to find a program that matches your BSN GPA, practicum experience, and tuition requirements.

There are presently 116 member schools offering the program across the United States. These schools are affiliated with the AACN and most received accreditation from CCNE, but programs differ. Use a guide that compares online CNL programs to find a good fit for you.

Once you complete your degree, you need to become certified to apply for CNL positions and assume the title of CNL.

Licensing Requirements for Clinical Nurse Leaders

To receive a CNL license, you’ll need to pass the CNL Certification Exam.

The exam is a three-hour computer-based exam based on practical issues derived from the CNL Job Analysis study. It features 140 questions; only 130 count towards your score while the other ten are pre-test items.

The CNL exam is a pass-fail exam.

If you fail, you will receive both your score and a report rating the content areas where you were Deficient, Marginal, or Proficient. The exam does not compare your results with other results to determine whether you pass or fail.

The point scale ranges from 150-500. You need a score of 350 to pass.

Preparing for the CNL Licensing Exam

Your postgraduate studies and work experience go a long way to preparing you for your CNL licensing exam. But you’ll still need to study.

The test creators base the exam on the CNL Job Analysis summary, which is available online for review by anyone preparing for the exam. You want to review the most recent job analysis study because the moderates update the test after each release.

In the exam, you’ll see primary domains like:

  • Nursing Leadership
  • Clinical Outcomes management
  • Care Environment Management

Within those domains are subdomains such as:

  • Horizontal Leadership
  • Healthcare advocacy
  • Patient Assessment
  • Illness/Disease Management
  • Healthcare Policy
  • Knowledge management
  • Team Coordination
  • Interprofessional Communication and Collaboration Skills
  • Healthcare Finance and Economics
  • Healthcare Informatics

You can review a detailed blueprint of the certification exam here.

Why Get a CNL License

A CNL license is a valuable tool for nurses interested in pursuing higher education and looking to the future of nursing. Although the role is still in its infancy in many ways, it offers a step forward into a leadership role and matching salary.

As a CNL, you can expect greater responsibilities and a higher salary. The average median wage for CNLs is $84,000, which is significantly higher than the RN wage of $65,470.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the role of the CNL and other nurse leaders will continue to grow. The BLS predicts all nursing roles will grow, advanced nursing roles could see their wages increase by 20 percent between now and 2022.

Is the CNL Path Right for You?

Getting your CNL license means completing a recognized CNL-associated master’s degree and then passing your exam. It offers a step up in your career that allows you the room to make decisions that are meaningful to both individual and whole groups of patients.

Are thinking about starting your journey to become a CNL but don’t live near a school offering the program? Click here for a list of schools that offer CNL master’s programs online.