Clarifying Misconceptions Between Certificate and Credentialing Programs

As an Interel Client Director and Executive Director of a credentialing organization in the healthcare sector, I have witnessed a frustratingly persistent misconception among credential holders, their employers and the clients or customers they serve, regarding the distinction between a “certificate” and “credential” program.  Although the syntax is similar between these two terms, their meanings are distinctly different from one another in the world of credentialing.

Let’s focus first on the term credential: At the Board of Registered Polysomnographic Technologists (BRPT), we currently administer three psychometrically validated credential programs delivered through a third-party testing service. The item bank that supports them follows rigorous exam development protocols.  In addition, the BRPT’s RPSGT credential, “the gold standard for sleep technologists”, is accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA).  Apart from the work that goes into development and maintenance of an exam like the RPSGT, the NCCA accreditation requirements alone are quite rigorous.  I would encourage the reader to visit the Institute for Credentialing Excellence’s website for more information on NCCA accreditation standards.

In contrast, an assessment-based certificate program is often a valuable jumping-off point for an association that aspires to eventually launch a credential program. Typically, the content used to assess this level of knowledge is narrower in scope than a psychometrically validated exam. At the BRPT, we evolved an education program focused on clinical sleep educators (Clinical Sleep Educator (CSE) Certificate) from an initial certificate program to the development of a full credential program (Certification in Clinical Sleep Health (CCSH)). In this scenario, the original certificate program was used as an educational tool to gain knowledge in a specific area. The credential that followed was an outcropping of the success of the certificate program and an interest expressed by our stakeholders to pursue a full credential.

This is an example of choosing to initiate a credentialing program based on reaching out to stakeholders/members who have indicated a certain level of interest. I would caution that the true level of interest needs to be carefully assessed, as the cost associated with developing a credential can by sizeable. You must take into account all the costs associated with launching a new credential. This includes not just exam development and testing fees, but costs associated with adding new online and/or paper applications, transfer of test results from your exam provider, new copyrights and trademarks, and any collateral materials like candidate handbooks, practice exams, study guides, etc. that support the new credential. Therefore, it make take some time for the credentialing organization to recoup its initial development costs, much less begin to see any ROI on a new credential.  To put it more bluntly, once you turn on the “open for business” sign on your new credential, you’d better have customers waiting in line ready to buy it.

Why are the standards that support an accredited credential like the RPSGT set to such a high level?  In healthcare, where patient safety is concerned, we must feel confident the person making an assessment about our health and wellbeing has demonstrated a certain level of core competency.  A credential, involving strict eligibility requirements, has more career cachet than a certificate program. My experience is that certification is so valued in some fields that it is seen as essential, and some professionals are more interested in the credential than in becoming members of the professional association that governs it.

Similarly, we want to feel the same level of confidence with experts that mange other aspects of our lives, such as: financial advisors, certified public accounts, lawyers, electricians, auto mechanics, etc.  The organizations that oversee their professions must also ensure their credential holders have also passed minimum standards; may be required to recertify periodically through continuing education; and that if they break established standards of conduct, they can have their credentials suspended or revoked.

I stated at the outset of this article my frustration with misconceptions about “credential” vs. “certificate.”  The most egregious error I see on a regular basis is when someone carries a certificate along with their other credentials on their professional profile. To someone with expertise in their credentialing niche, the error is easier to spot.  However, to a layperson, it’s an alphabet soup and they will assume the certificate acronyms comingled with other, real credentials are all based on equivalent standards. I honestly believe most “certificate” holders are unaware of their own professional gaff.

When we developed the Clinical Sleep Educator (CSE) certificate program, it was based on nomenclature widely understood by people in the profession and the term was well established.  In contrast, the BRPT chose to differentiate the new credential by assigning it the name Certification in Clinical Sleep Health (CCSH).  However, the term CSE had already taken a foothold in sleep medicine and certificate holders mistakenly added the CSE along with their RPSGT and/or other healthcare credentials. This confusion spilled over to employers as well. I recall cringing when I saw several job postings that included the phrase “prefer someone with CSE or CCSH credential.”  As you can imagine, the BRPT has been trying to educate our credential holders about the very important distinctions between the two!