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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:
|University||Available||Graduation Rate||Acceptance Rate||Location|
|Augusta University||Campus||26%||83%||Augusta, Georgia|
|Ball State University||Campus, Online||61%||62%||Muncie, Indiana|
|California State University-Dominguez Hills||Campus, Hybrid, Online||74%||81%||Carson, California|
|California State University-San Marcos||Campus, Hybrid, Online||53%||58%||San Marcos, California|
|Central Methodist University||Campus||52%||94%||Fayette, Missouri|
|Cleveland State University||Campus, Online||56%||88%||Cleveland, Ohio|
|Colby-Sawyer College||Campus, Online||60%||91%||New London, New Hampshire|
|Cox College||Campus, Hybrid, Online||44%||100%||Springfield, Missouri|
|Creighton University||Campus, Hybrid, Online||80%||64%||Omaha, Nebraska|
|CUNY Hunter College||Campus, Hybrid||51%||40%||New York|
|Dominican University of California||Campus||72%||86%||San Rafael, California|
|Drexel University||Campus, Hybrid, Online||71%||77%||Philadelphia, Pennsylvania|
|East Tennessee State University||Campus, Hybrid, Online||41%||78%||Johnson City, Tennessee|
|Elmhurst University||Campus||64%||66%||Elmhurst, Illinois|
|Fairfield University||Campus, Hybrid||81%||56%||Fairfield, Connecticut|
|Florida Atlantic University||Campus, Hybrid, Online||56%||75%||Boca Raton, Florida|
|Georgetown University||Campus, Hybrid, Online||95%||17%||Washington DC|
|Grand View University||Campus||65%||95%||Des Moines, Iowa|
|Idaho State University||Campus, Hybrid, Online||57%||N/A||Pocatello, Idaho|
|James Madison University||CAMPUS, Hybrid, Online||83%||80%||Harrisonburg, Virginia|
|La Salle University||Campus, Hybrid, Online||67%||76%||Philadelphia, Pennsylvania|
|Marquette University||Campus, Hybrid||80%||82%||Wisconsin Ave, Milwaukee|
|Millikin University||Campus, Online||60%||71%||Decatur, Illinois|
|Moravian College||Campus, Hybrid||63%||80%||Bethlehem, Pennsylvania|
|Oakland University||Campus, Hybrid, Online||45%||81%||Rochester Hills, Michigan|
|Pacific Lutheran University||Campus, Hybrid||70%||86%||Tacoma, Washington|
|Queens University of Charlotte||Campus||54%||68%||Charlotte, North Carolina|
|Regis College||Campus, Hybrid, Online||49%||84%||Weston, Massachusetts|
|Research College of Nursing||Campus, Hybrid, Online||82%||N/A||Kansas City, Missouri|
|Sacred Heart University||Campus, Hybrid, Online||72%||66%||Fairfield, Connecticut|
|Saginaw Valley State University||Campus, Hybrid||40%||89%||University Center, Michigan|
|Saint Anthony College of Nursing||Campus, Hybrid||88%||100%||Rockford, Illinois|
|Saint Francis Medical Center-College of Nursing||Campus, Hybrid, Online||89%||N/A||Peoria, Missouri|
|Saint Xavier University||Campus||51%||79%||Chicago, Illinois|
|Seattle Pacific University||Campus||67%||91%||Seattle, Washington|
|Seton Hall University||Campus, Hybrid, Online||67%||78%||South Orange, New Jersey|
|South Dakota State University||Campus, Hybrid, Online||55%||89%||Brookings, South Dakota|
|Southern Connecticut State University||Campus||49%||80%||New Haven, Connecticut|
|Spring Hill College||Campus||52%||54%||Mobile, Alabama|
|Temple University||Campus, Hybrid||71%||71%||Philadelphia, Pennsylvania|
|Tennessee Technological University||Campus, Online||50%||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 |
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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