September 27, 2023
Female healthcare professional in front of nurses and doctor

The role of a Clinical Nurse Leader is a relatively new one for the nursing profession. It was developed in 2003 as part of a collaborative effort between the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) and several other healthcare organizations, all of whom recognized that the rapid changes within the healthcare system had created a need for nurses who could lead the way to improved outcomes.

Clinical Nurse Leaders use their skills, knowledge and experience to collect and evaluate available information and combine it with available resources to provide the highest quality of care for patients and the wider community, and the most efficient delivery of that care for the team and the healthcare system itself.  

Clinical Nurse Leaders are professionals who take nursing beyond the bedside. They act as advocates, leaders, and teachers across the continuum of care with other healthcare providers to implement best practices. Pursuing a career as a Clinical Nurse Leader is a commitment to the healthcare industry and patients as well. This guide was created to help those considering this profession find out what it takes to become a CNL and if it’s the right path for them.

Part One What is a Clinical Nurse Leader?

Clinical nurse leaders are Master’s degree-prepared nurses who are team leaders. They look at the big picture and use data and research to affect positive change in patient care and the healthcare environment as a whole. Clinical Nurse Leaders collaborate with other healthcare team members, acting as liaisons between caregivers, patients, and administrators to improve outcomes and redesign the care environment to provide improved quality of care.

Studies have shown that Clinical Nurse Leaders have a profound impact on their organization, including shorter length of stay, reduced readmission rates, improvements in patient safety (i.e. decreased fall and infection rates) and satisfaction, and lower staff turnover. They achieve this through the skilled use of risk management, care coordination, outcomes measurement, and interprofessional communication.

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Part Two What Do Clinical Nurse Leaders Do?

Clinical Nurse Leaders provide oversight and improvement over much of the activity that goes on within their assigned clinical setting, and as such, they take on many different roles

  • They take an active clinical role in patient care, particularly regarding wellbeing and risk reduction. 
  • They collect and integrate data to further their understanding of what provides the best possible outcomes and use available technology to further that goal. 
  • They act as advocates for patients, families, and communities. 
  • They educate their colleagues within the healthcare team as well as patients and their families about healthcare strategies and principles.
  • They delegate responsibilities for patient care and care setting management.
  • They coordinate collaborative care for patients.
  • They analyze outcomes and quality of care to minimize medical errors and improve patient satisfaction.
  • They act as mentors to staff and liaisons to administration to ensure the satisfaction of the healthcare professionals on their team.

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Part Three What is the Average Salary for a Clinical Nurse Leader?

According to ZipRecruiter, Clinical Nurse Leaders earn generous annual salaries, with an average annual pay of $102,129 and a range of compensation that goes as high as $168,000

The differential in available salaries is based upon the geographic location and setting in which the Clinical Nurse Leader serves, though years of experience and educational level can also have a significant impact. 

In addition to base salary, Clinical Nurse Leaders are frequently provided additional benefits and perks, including paid sick time and vacation leave, personal time, tuition and childcare reimbursement, and health, life, dental, vision and prescription coverage.

Part Four How Do You Become a Clinical Nurse Leader?

In order to become a Clinical Nurse Leader, you’ll need to complete the following steps:

1. Become a Registered Nurse

Graduate from an accredited ADN or BSN program and pass the NCLEX-RN to earn your registered nurse license.

2. Earn Your Masters Degree or Higher From an Accredited CNL Program

ADN prepared nurses will either need to earn their BSN or go through an accelerated RN-MSN program to advance their education. BSN-prepared nurses can go directly into an MSN program. 

Your CNL program will need to include a minimum of 400 clinical hours within the CNL program, including a minimum of 300 clinical hours in a clinical immersion experience.

3. Become Certified by Taking the AACN Clinical Nurse Leader Certification Exam

Once a CNL candidate has completed their educational program and fulfilled their clinical hour requirement, they are then ready to take the AACN Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL) Certification exam. Certification requires passing the exam, as well as:

  • Having a current license as a Registered Nurse
  • Having earned a Masters’ degree or higher from an accredited CNL program
  • Having completed a minimum of 400 clinical hours within the CNL program, which can include the 300 hours of clinical immersion described below
  • Having completed a minimum of 300 clinical hours in a clinical immersion experience

How Long Does it Take to Become a Clinical Nurse Leader?

The total timeline expected for becoming a Clinical Nurse Leader is:

  1. 6 years to earn undergraduate and Masters’ degrees
  2. Pass NCLEX-RN exam
  3. Pass CNL certification examination
  4. Gain experience working in clinical patient care

The Path to Becoming a Clinical Nurse Leader

Becoming a Clinical Nurse Leader is a very different path from that of other nursing careers. Where other nursing programs favor education in hands-on care, those who seek a CNL degree begin with content mastery of anatomy, microbiology, epidemiology and statistics at the undergraduate level, but then in their Master’s studies, they focus on competency in quality improvement, interdisciplinary team care, evidence-based practice, policy, and organization.  

The curriculum that they study will focus on critical thinking and clinical decision making, ethics, accountability, values and resource management, and requires the minimum number of hours of Clinical Nurse Leader clinical experiences that we mentioned above. 

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Part Five What are the Continuing Education Requirements for Clinical Nurse Leaders?

Maintaining a Clinical Nurse Leader certification requires renewal every five years. CNLs must complete a minimum of 50 contact hours, which must include:

  • At least one contact hour of a Continuing Medical Education unit
  • At least one contact hour of a Continuing Nursing Education unit
  • At least ten contact hours of a Continuing Education unit 
  • Either 10 contact hours by quarter or 15 contact hours by semester of college credit hours

Mentoring, coaching, preceptorship, or clinical supervision can count towards contact hours. Recertification also requires having Registered Nurse licensure, having maintained the CNL Standards of Conduct, and having worked a minimum of 2000 hours in the five-year certification period.

Part Six What is the Career Outlook for Clinical Nurse Leaders?

Nursing positions at all levels and all specialty areas are in high demand. There is a national nursing shortage, and as a result, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has indicated that the employment of registered nurses will grow by 6% between 2022 and 2032. Add to that an overall need for the significant contributions and improvements that Clinical Nurse Leaders make to the departments in which they work and it is easy to see why so many facilities and healthcare systems are seeking them out. 

Their role is specifically created to design, implement and evaluate patient care in any and every department in which they are assigned. As a result, their work has tremendous value to the organizations they work in. The position is relatively new and there are only about 1,000 certified CNLs in the United States at this time, ensuring that new nurses entering this important field can have a high level of confidence in their career outlook and their job prospects.

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Part Seven Where Can I Learn More About Becoming a Clinical Nurse Leader?

When the Clinical Nurse Leader role was first envisioned, it was in response to a real need for point-of-care leadership that would ensure safe, evidence-based care delivery and outcome improvement. In the years since, it has developed into one of the most respected and valued positions in nursing. It requires flexibility and collaboration; creativity and analytical skills; the ability to leverage resources and a strong interest in advocacy for patients, their community, and the healthcare community as well. For more information about the field and access to additional resources, visit the websites for the Clinical Nurse Leader Association and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

The Clinical Nurse Leader position is the first new role in nursing in decades. Those who choose this exciting profession will combine their clinical competencies with their knowledge of evidence-based practice, safety, quality, risk reduction and cost containment. They work with patients of all types across the continuum of care as well as a wide range of colleagues within the medical and healthcare team to improve patient outcomes and the system itself.

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  • What is the Clinical Nurse Leader role?

    • Clinical nurse leaders can work within any clinical setting, but their role is less dedicated to hands-on care and is more focused on implementing and/or modifying practice within their environment to improve patient outcomes. They act as teachers, researchers, advocates and innovators, collaborating with the rest of the healthcare team to enact plans that advance best practices.
  • How much money does a Clinical Nurse Leader make?

    • Nationally, Clinical Nurse Leaders earn an average annual salary of $102,129, but their income varies depending upon the type of facility they work in, their experience, and their geographic location.
  • What certification do you need to become a Clinical Nurse Leader?

    • Clinical Nurse Leaders must be licensed Registered Nurses who hold a Master’s degree or higher from an accredited nursing school. The Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL) Certification exam is administered by the Commission on Nurse Certification (CNC). In addition to the exam, certification requires completion of a minimum of 400 clinical hours within a formal CNL education program and completion of a minimum of 300 clinical hours in a clinical immersion experience in the CNL role (this can be part of their 400 total clinical hours).
  • What is the difference between a Clinical Nurse Specialist and a Clinical Nurse Leader?

    • While both Clinical Nurse Specialists and Clinical Nurse Leaders are leaders within their fields, the two have very different roles. Clinical Nurse Specialists are hands-on advanced practice registered nurses who specialize in a particular area of medicine, while Clinical Nurse Leaders are generalists who are dedicated to improving the delivery of care in whatever setting they work within. They collaborate with other healthcare professionals to improve patient outcomes by leveraging technology and data and improving communication and collaboration. 
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