The Difference Between the Certification & Licensing of a Health Care Professional

Nurses need a license to be employed; a certificate highlights their qualifications.
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Both licensure and certification are frequently needed for health care professions, from emergency medical technicians to nurses to doctors. Many prospective health care professionals confuse the terms "license" and "certification" and believe the two are synonymous, though they are not. There are critical differences between a certificate and a license, including who grants them, how they are granted and why they are important.

1 Public vs. Private Authority

A major difference between a certificate and a license for many health-related professions involves who administers the qualification. In general, doctors, nurses or other healthcare career professions earn a license from a state or federal government. A certification, on the other hand, generally does not come from a public entity, but from a private one. This might include an association of nurses or a non-profit organization with authority in a specific career. While a government may also provide a certificate, licenses almost never come from non-government or regulatory entities.

2 Voluntary or Required

While certificates are generally voluntary, licenses are frequently required. For example, a doctor cannot practice in most states without obtaining a license to practice as a doctor. The same is generally true of a long list of other health careers, including nurses and EMT's. A certificate, on the other hand, is merely meant to show prospective customers or the general public that a person has achieved some high standard of qualifications. The Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians, for example, offers a certificate but that certificate does not in itself allow a person to practice as an EMT. It merely shows patients that a third party has approved of a particular EMT's qualifications.

3 Reasons to Get a Certificate

Since certificates are voluntary, deciding whether to get one involves weighing the value of the qualification. For some careers, while having a certificate isn't legally required, holding the qualification will give you a big leg up in a career. A licensed surgeon, for example, can legally practice without certification from the American Board of Surgeons, but holding a certification from the ABS assures potential patients that the surgeon has been thoroughly vetted by a third party. Holding the certificate, therefore, is a way of showing a person has qualifications in a healthcare career beyond the bare minimum.

4 Need to Renew

Sometimes, both licenses and certificates need to be renewed. Usually, the terms of renewal will be clearly defined at the initial point of licensure or certification. At the American Red Cross, for example, a CPR/First Aid certificate needs to be renewed every two years. The terms of renewal will vary widely by field. Some, like the Red Cross, allow students who are renewing their certificate to take an abbreviated course that refreshes their knowledge of the subject to shorten the process.

Kevin Wandrei has written extensively on higher education. His work has been published with Kaplan,, and Shmoop, Inc., among others. He is currently pursuing a Master of Public Administration at Cornell University.