Nursing
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How To Become A Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL)

How To Become A Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL)

A clinical nurse leader (CNL) is a highly-qualified nurse who advocates for better patient care and assists in improving patient outcomes.

CNLs collaborate with a healthcare team, including nurses, doctors, occupational therapists, and more.

What Does a Clinical Nurse Leader Do?

The clinical nurse leader role was created in 2003 by the American Association of Colleges of Nurses (AACN). The idea was to create a highly specialized role that could reduce the number of deaths caused by medical errors.

According to a 2017 analysis, medical errors account for as many as 251,000 annual deaths in the United States. These rates are higher than most other developed nations. Not only are these figures seriously detrimental to the millions of patients that pass through US hospitals every year, but they also harm the healthcare industry in general.

Clinical nurse leaders are at the very top of the nursing profession. They are skilled healthcare professionals that work to improve the efficiency of healthcare facilities and the effectiveness of treatments.

Some of the roles performed by clinical nurse leaders include:

  • Assessing healthcare plans and risks
  • Working with a diverse range of patients
  • Improving patient outcomes using evidence-based practice
  • Coordinating patient care among a healthcare team
  • Making sure that protocols are followed
  • Improving patient safety standards
  • Assisting with patient education
  • Maintaining a safe, secure, and effective healthcare environment
  • Collecting and analyzing data

Clinical Nurse Leader vs Clinical Nurse Specialist

The roles of clinical nurse leaders (CNL) and clinical nurse specialists (CNS) are very similar and are often confused with one another. There are some key differences, though.

CNLs coordinate care for all patients under their charge. They work within a large nursing team and perform a range of duties, as noted above.

A clinical nurse specialist provides direct patient care and specializes in a specific area of nursing, just like nurse practitioners.

How to Become a Clinical Nurse Leader

To become a clinical nurse leader, you must first complete a bachelor's degree and then a Master's Degree.

You will also need to complete the NCLEX-RN exam to acquire your registered nursing license.

The route that you take to become a clinical nurse leader will depend on your current qualifications.

Your options include:

  • BSN to MSN: Registered nurses can fast-track a master's degree program, completing it within 2 years.
  • Bachelor's Degree to MSN : If your bachelor's degree is in something other than nursing, you can complete a Direct Entry Master's program. These programs prepare nurses for the registered nursing exam and ensure they have the necessary skills and qualifications for a career in nursing.
  • MSN to DNP: If you have a master's degree, you can think about advancing toward a Doctorate in Nursing Practice (DNP) program, which could take up to three years to complete.
  • BSN to DNP: Completing a DNP with a BSN should take about 4 years.

There are a number of clinical nurse leader programs in the United States. To help you find the right one for you, we have listed some of the best CNL nursing programs below:

UniversityAvailableGraduation RateAcceptance RateLocation
Augusta UniversityCampus26%83%Augusta, Georgia
Ball State UniversityCampus, Online61%62%Muncie, Indiana
California State University-Dominguez HillsCampus, Hybrid, Online74%81%Carson, California
California State University-San MarcosCampus, Hybrid, Online53%58%San Marcos, California
Central Methodist UniversityCampus52%94%Fayette, Missouri
Cleveland State UniversityCampus, Online56%88%Cleveland, Ohio
Colby-Sawyer CollegeCampus, Online60%91%New London, New Hampshire
Cox CollegeCampus, Hybrid, Online44%100%Springfield, Missouri
Creighton UniversityCampus, Hybrid, Online80%64%Omaha, Nebraska
CUNY Hunter CollegeCampus, Hybrid51%40%New York
Dominican University of CaliforniaCampus72%86%San Rafael, California
Drexel UniversityCampus, Hybrid, Online71%77%Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
East Tennessee State UniversityCampus, Hybrid, Online41%78%Johnson City, Tennessee
Elmhurst UniversityCampus64%66%Elmhurst, Illinois
Fairfield UniversityCampus, Hybrid81%56%Fairfield, Connecticut
Florida Atlantic UniversityCampus, Hybrid, Online56%75%Boca Raton, Florida
Georgetown UniversityCampus, Hybrid, Online95%17%Washington DC
Grand View UniversityCampus65%95%Des Moines, Iowa
Idaho State UniversityCampus, Hybrid, Online57%N/APocatello, Idaho
James Madison UniversityCAMPUS, Hybrid, Online83%80%Harrisonburg, Virginia
La Salle UniversityCampus, Hybrid, Online67%76%Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Marquette UniversityCampus, Hybrid80%82%Wisconsin Ave, Milwaukee
Millikin UniversityCampus, Online60%71%Decatur, Illinois
Moravian CollegeCampus, Hybrid63%80%Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
Oakland UniversityCampus, Hybrid, Online45%81%Rochester Hills, Michigan
Pacific Lutheran UniversityCampus, Hybrid70%86%Tacoma, Washington
Queens University of CharlotteCampus54%68%Charlotte, North Carolina
Regis CollegeCampus, Hybrid, Online49%84%Weston, Massachusetts
Research College of NursingCampus, Hybrid, Online82%N/AKansas City, Missouri
Sacred Heart UniversityCampus, Hybrid, Online72%66%Fairfield, Connecticut
Saginaw Valley State UniversityCampus, Hybrid40%89%University Center, Michigan
Saint Anthony College of NursingCampus, Hybrid88%100%Rockford, Illinois
Saint Francis Medical Center-College of NursingCampus, Hybrid, Online89%N/APeoria, Missouri
Saint Xavier UniversityCampus51%79%Chicago, Illinois
Seattle Pacific UniversityCampus67%91%Seattle, Washington
Seton Hall UniversityCampus, Hybrid, Online67%78%South Orange, New Jersey
South Dakota State UniversityCampus, Hybrid, Online55%89%Brookings, South Dakota
Southern Connecticut State UniversityCampus49%80%New Haven, Connecticut
Spring Hill CollegeCampus52%54%Mobile, Alabama
Temple UniversityCampus, Hybrid71%71%Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Tennessee Technological UniversityCampus, Online50%80%Cookeville, Tennessee

| | Texas Christian University | Campus | 82% | 48% | Fort Worth, Texas | | Texas State University-San Marcos and St. David School of Nursing | Campus, Hybrid | 54% | 85% | San Marcos, Texas | | Texas Woman's University | Campus, Hybrid, Online | 63% | 94% | Denton, Texas | | The College of New Jersey | Campus, Hybrid | 87% | 51% | Ewing Township, New Jersey | | The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio | Campus, Hybrid | 92% | N/A | San Antonio, Texas | | University of Alabama | Campus, Hybrid, Online | 68% | 80% | Tuscaloosa, Alabama | | University of Alabama at Birmingham | Campus, Hybrid, Online | 52% | 81% | Birmingham, Alabama | | University of California-Los Angeles | Campus | 91% | 14% | Los Angeles, California | | University of Central Arkansas-Conway | Campus, Online | 41% | 94% | Conway, Arkansas | | University of Central Florida | Campus, Hybrid, Online | 74% | 45% | Central Florida Blvd | | University of Connecticut-Storrs Campus | Campus, Hybrid | 83% | 56% | Storrs, Connecticut | | University of Detroit Mercy | Campus | 62% | 79% | Detroit, Michigan | | University of Florida-Gainesville | Campus, Hybrid, Online | 88% | 31% | Gainesville, Florida | | The University of Illinois at Chicago | Campus, Hybrid, Online | 57% | 73% | Chicago, Illinois | | University of Iowa | Campus, Hybrid | 74% | 84% | Iowa City, Iowa | | University of Maryland-Baltimore | Campus, Hybrid, Online | 91% | N/A | Baltimore, Maryland | | University of Massachusetts-Amherst | Campus, Online | 77% | 65% | Amherst, Massachusetts | | University of Minnesota | Campus, Hybrid | 80% | 70% | Minneapolis, Minnesota | | University of Nevada-Reno | Campus, Hybrid | 54% | 87% | Reno, Nevada | | University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill | Campus, Hybrid, Online | 91% | 25% | Chapel Hill, North Carolina | | University of North Caroline at Pembroke | Campus | 40% | 91% | Pembroke, North Carolina | | University of North Florida | Campus, Hybrid, Online | 63% | 80% | Jacksonville, Florida | | University of Northern Colorado | Campus, Hybrid, Online | 47% | 88% | Greeley, Colorado | | University of Oklahoma-Health Sciences Center | Campus, Hybrid, Online | 93% | N/A | Oklahoma City, Oklahoma | | University of Pittsburgh | Campus Online | 82% | 64% | Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania | | University of Portland | Campus, Hybrid | 81% | 77% | Portland, Oregon | | University of Rhode Island | Campus, Hybrid, Online | 65% | 76% | Kingston, Rhode Island | | University of San Francisco | Campus, Hybrid, Online | 77% | 70% | San Francisco, California | | University of South Alabama | Campus Online | 38% | 73% | Mobile, Alabama | | University of Southern Carolina-Upstate | Campus, Online | 70% | 60% | Spartanburg, South Carolina | | University of Southern Maine | Campus, Hybrid | 57% | 88% | Portland, Maine | | University of the Incarnate Word | Campus, Hybrid, Online | 53% | 67% | San Antonio, Texas | | University of Toledo | Campus, Hybrid, Online | 39% | 95% | Toledo, Ohio | | University of Vermont | Campus, Hybrid | 75% | 71% | Burlington, Vermont | | University of Washington | Campus | 84% | 56% | Seattle Washington | | University of West Georgia | Campus, Online | 39% | 78% | Carrollton, Georgia | | University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee | Campus, Hybrid, Online | 41% | 79% | Milwaukee, Wisconsin | | University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh | Campus, Hybrid, Online | 52% | 79% | Oshkosh, Wisconsin | | Valdosta State University | Campus, Hybrid | 37% | 78% | Valdosta, Georgia | | Virginia Commonwealth University | Campus, Hybrid, Online | 62% | 91% | Richmond, Virginia | | Viterbo College | Campus, Hybrid, Online | 55% | 79% | La Crosse, Wisconsin | | Washburn University | Campus, Hybrid, Online | 44% | N/A | Topeka, Kansas | | Western Governors University | Campus, Online | N/A | N/A | Salt Lake City, Utah | | Wright State University-Main Campus | Campus, Hybrid, Online | 36% | 96% | Dayton, Ohio | | Xavier University | Campus, Online | 69% | 81% | Cincinnati, Ohio |

CNL Certification

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) offers a clinical nurse leader certification. The exam consists of 140 multiple choice questions and once you become certified, you must reapply every 5 years.

You can apply for this certification after you complete your degree.

Is a CNL a Registered Nurse?

Yes, all clinical nurse leaders must qualify as registered nurses. That's not where their education ends, though, and it can take anywhere from 7 to 8 years to fully qualify as a clinical nurse leader.

Where Do Clinical Nurse Leaders Work?

CNLs work wherever patients need care. This can include a hospital or primary care facility, as well as rehabilitation clinics, correctional facilities, occupational health settings, and more.

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