Continuing Education for Nurses: Definitions, Requirements & Where to Find Courses
As a registered nurse (RN), a licensed practical nurse or vocational nurse (LPN/LVN), or a nurse practitioner (NP), you’re often required to complete a certain number of continuing education courses each year to keep your state licensure current. You may also need continuing education credits to fulfill your employer’s requirements or to maintain specialty certifications through a nursing association.
Completion of these courses is not only necessary to maintain and advance your career, it can also help you stay up to date on practices to provide the best possible care to your patients.
But where will you find the time? The good news is there are plenty of continuing education courses for nurses available—in a variety of convenient formats—from online classes to nursing conferences and more. Some are even free, or your employer may offer to reimburse you.
Read on to learn about nurse continuing education requirements, the types of courses available, and where to find eligible courses that fit your needs and goals.
What Is Continuing Education for Nurses?
The term “continuing education” is often used to broadly describe education programs designed for adult learners who are looking for personal or professional enrichment. People may use the phrase continuing education to refer to advanced degree programs, but for professionals in healthcare, the term often relates to the specific education requirements that are required for maintaining licensure requirements.
How are CEU, CE, and CNE different?
There are a few common acronyms that are used to describe continuing education. Here’s a definition of each to help clear up any confusion:
- CE is a general term that refers to continuing education. In nursing, CE often refers to the requirements for maintaining an active license.
- CNE stands for continuing nursing education and the CE courses designed specifically for nursing professionals.
- CME is an acronym for continuing medical education. Some courses and webinars may provide CE hours to more than 1 type of medical professional.
- CEU stands for continuing education unit. A single CEU is equal to 10 hours of instruction. The hours of instruction are also known as “contact hours.” A CEU is the unit for formally measuring CE for the purposes of licensing.
Contact hours: How CE is measured
In a board-approved nursing continuing education class or activity, 1 contact hour is based on 50–60 minutes of instruction, depending on the state.
Why Is Continuing Education Necessary for Nurses?
The field of nursing is constantly evolving, with new technology, treatment options, and protocols. Nurse continuing education courses can help you stay current on the latest best practices and become more knowledgeable about a particular area of interest.
In addition, continuing education courses for nurses are often a requirement to maintain certifications or state licensures. These credentials can help demonstrate your qualifications to employers, patients, and families, so it’s important to stay on top of your nursing CEUs.
Nursing license renewal and professional memberships
As a condition of state licensure, nurses often have to complete continuing education courses within a specific time period (usually every 2–3 years), although not all states have CE requirements.
To maintain your license, you may need to dedicate a certain amount of contact hours to specific topics as required by your state, while the remaining contact hours can be focused on topics of your choice.
For example, Florida requires RNs to complete 24 contact hours every 2 years and use 1 contact hour on HIV/AIDs training to renew their license. In contrast, Michigan requires RNs to complete 25 contact hours every 2 years with 1 contact hour on pain and symptom management.
When required, CE hours must be completed in a certain time frame, and hours do not carry over. So even if you complete extra hours in 1 renewal period, you’ll still have to complete a set number of hours in the following period.
Check with your state board of nursing to learn more about mandatory continuing education for nurses. For a list of state boards of nursing, visit the National Council of State Boards of Nursing or our state boards page.
Even if your state has no CE requirements, you may still be required to complete CEUs by your employer. Some employers include continuing education as a criterion in their employee performance evaluations.
You may also choose to complete CEUs to maintain a specialty certification through a nursing association such as the American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN) or the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC).
Career growth and specialization
Continuing education isn’t just another box you need to check to keep your job—it’s also a chance to become a better nurse, gain experience in a specialized area, and strengthen your potential job prospects in the future.
Earning a certification in a specialty area could help increase your knowledge and confidence, and better position you for continued advancement. Many healthcare organizations and magnet-recognized hospitals prefer to hire certified nurses to better market their services and boost the facility’s perception in the eyes of the public.
You may choose to become certified in specialty areas such as:
- Critical care
- Ambulatory care
- Cardiac vascular nursing
- Nurse executive
- Pain management
- Psychiatric mental health
Because the field of nursing is constantly changing, continuing education is a requirement for maintaining these types of nursing certifications. For example, to be certified as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) with the ANCC, you must complete 75 contact hours every 5 years. To be eligible for a CCRN specialty certification with the AACN, you must complete 100 hours of continuing education every 3 years.
Specialty certifications often require a relatively high bar for continuing education requirements for nurses. As a result, those who maintain these credentials are often viewed as motivated and dedicated professionals who stay up-to-date on the latest research and trends.
What Kinds of Nurses Have CE Requirements?
Depending on the state, RNs, LPNs, and NPs might all need to maintain certain CE requirements. Some states have the same requirements for all 3, while others designate different amounts of nursing CEUs for each. For instance, Illinois requires RNs and LPNs to complete 20 contact hours every 2 years, while NPs must complete 50 hours every 2 years. However, these requirements vary widely by state.
What Kind of Courses Can I Take?
The type of course you can take depends on what requirements you need to meet:
- State licensure: Double check with your state board of nursing for more information on what types of courses are needed to keep your nursing license.
- Specialty certifications: The nursing association that offers the specialty certification you need will provide information on which types of activities and courses apply for renewal.
- Employer: Your employer may approve specific types of nursing continuing education courses, or they may even reimburse you for courses as part of your ongoing training.
In addition, the ANCC is another helpful resource to consider when choosing courses. The ANCC accredits nursing continuing education providers and is recognized by all state boards of nursing. You can find a list of ANCC-accredited providers of continuing education by state on the ANCC website.
Here are a few examples of CE courses to give you an idea of the range available:
- Acute and Chronic Pain Assessment and Management: Covers the latest research and techniques for treating different types of pain and addiction issues, including common myths.
- Acute Pancreatitis: Outlines important signs, symptoms, and risk factors for this difficult-to-diagnose condition and compares the different treatment options that are now available.
- Bipolar Disorder: Teaches nurses how to recognizes the signs of bipolar disorder, a lifelong brain disease which often goes undiagnosed and untreated.
- Forensic Evidence Collection for Nurses: Trains nurses to provide healthcare to victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, and elder abuse and gather the documentation needed to prosecute offenders.
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): Explains the best practices for diagnosing, treating, and managing IBD, a debilitating and sometimes deadly disease effecting 1.8 million adults in the U.S.
- HIV Case Studies: Compares and contrasts the various stages of HIV, identifies treatment options, and explains common complications.
Keep in mind that some states require you to take specific courses as part of your continuing education. For example, Washington requires an HIV class and New York requires a course on identifying and reporting child abuse.
In addition to CE requirements, you may be required to become certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), basic life support, or advanced cardiac life support (ACLS) to maintain your nursing license. However, these types of certifications do not always count toward your CEUs and may be considered in-service training.
What to Look for in Continuing Education Programs
Once you’ve identified the specific requirements you need to fulfill, you can start browsing different types of continuing education for nurses. You can find courses that are available both online and in person. Some may be located right near you or across the country. Consider the cost, convenience, and quality of the course when selecting various options.
Where to Find Eligible Nursing CE Courses
Nursing CE courses are offered in a variety of formats, including conferences, workshops, seminars, webinars, and in-person classes.
A number of national nursing organizations offer CE courses:
- American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN)
- American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP)
- American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA)
- Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric, and Neonatal Nurses (AWHONN)
- American College of Nurse-Midwives (ACNM)
- National Association of Nursing Practitioners in Women’s Health (NPWH)
- National League for Nursing (NLN)
So what type of learning activities do not count as CEUs? Typically, employer orientations, in-service presentations, and on-the-job training are not accepted. Non-nursing related courses, such as general education, liberal arts, or self-help classes, will not count either.
Nursing conferences, workshops, and seminars
There are hundreds of nursing conferences each year, and many offer workshops and seminars that can count as CEUs. Continuing education conferences for nurses are also a great way to network and connect with other likeminded nurses in your field.
Traditional classroom settings
Nursing courses taken at an accredited college or university as part of a bachelor’s or graduate degree program may be eligible to count toward your CEUs as well. These courses may include a variety of nursing-specific topics such as:
- Health Promotion and Clinical Prevention
- Principles of Assessment for RNs
- Illness and Disease Management Across the Lifespan
- Policy, Politics, and Global Health Trends
- Advanced Nursing Leadership
In addition, you can find in-person CE classes through a number of private organizations.
Online nursing CEUs
But you don’t have to leave home to fulfill continuing education requirements. Many nursing courses and webinars are available online through nursing associations and a variety of other providers.
Note that it’s not uncommon for courses (from organizations such as the AACN and others) to require students to take a test at the end of the class.
Free continuing education for nurses
Free nursing CEUs are available if you know where to look. You may be able to get free continuing education for nurses through associations that offer classes and webinars at no charge as a benefit of becoming a member. The AACN provides an online library with hundreds of free continuing education units.
Do I Need to Report My CE Courses?
You don’t have to report your CE courses as you complete them; however, you’ll need to keep records of all your CE courses for when you apply for renewal or if you get audited by the state board of nursing.
Keep digital copies of the course completion notifications you receive or certificates of attendance for the entire renewal period.
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