Certificate or Certification: What’s the Difference?

October 2015 Vol 6, No 5


Nurse Navigation
Mandi Pratt-Chapman, MA, PhD, HON-OPN-CG
Associate Center Director,
Patient-Centered Initiatives & Health Equity,
GW Cancer Center
Washington, DC

Patient navigation is a fast-growing profession as a result of the early work of Harold P. Freeman, MD, in Harlem, NY.1 Research has demonstrated the impact of patient navigation,2 and a new American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer Standard requiring a patient navigation process for accredited cancer programs beginning in 2015.3

Compared with other healthcare professionals, patient navigation is still a relatively new discipline. Thus, significant confusion remains regarding the role, scope of practice, and ideal training and credentials for patient navigators.

Oncology Patient Navigation Certification

To advance the profession, the George Washington University (GW) Cancer Institute developed Core Competencies for Oncology Patient Navigators through a rigorous mixed methods study,4 and recently released a competency-based online training that is freely available to patient navigators.5 Those who successfully complete the 20-hour course receive a certificate of completion. This is no small feat, given the breadth of what is covered in the training and the 200-question assessment required.

However, more work remains to be done to solidify patient navigation as a profession. Questions that frequently arise are:

  • What does it mean to be a licensed navigator?
  • What does it mean to have a patient navigation certificate?
  • How is certification different from a certificate?

Some patient navigators are nurses or social workers who hold a clinical license in their field that is separate from patient navigation. Their license is acquired through professional training from an educational institution and a state licensing process.

Other patient navigators have participated in a live or an online training program and are able to document their participation with a certificate of completion. This certificate demonstrates knowledge acquired by participating in a specific course at a specific time.

Documentation of training can be critically important to obtain a job as a patient navigator. However, very few patient navigators are currently certified. Exhibit 1 outlines the differences between a certificate and certification.6

Currently, only limited certification is available for breast imaging and breast cancer navigators.7 But this is changing. In 2015, the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators (AONN+) created a task force to launch a new certification process for oncology patient navigators who do not hold a clinical license.

The credentials for this certification are OPN-CG, which stands for Oncology Patient Navigator–Certified Generalist. This task force is running in parallel with a task force established in 2014 to certify nurse navigators. The time line for certification is outlined in Exhibit 2.

Take Action

What can you do to prepare for Oncology Patient Navigator certification from AONN+?

  1. Become an AONN+ member or retain your AONN+ membership status
  2. Take the free, online GW Cancer Institute Oncology Patient Navigator Training to establish a solid foundation in core competencies
  3. Sign up for the spring 2016 beta exam when it is announced
  4. Sign up for the certification exam when it is available in fall 2016
  5. Document your experience as a navigator in practice.

Funding for the online Oncology Patient Navigator Training was provided by Cooperative Agreement #1U38DP004972-02 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All contents are solely the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of the funder.


  1. Vargas RB, Ryan GW, Jackson CA, et al. Characteristics of the original patient navigation programs to reduce disparities in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. Cancer. 2008;113:426-433.
  2. Freund KM, Battaglia TA, Calhoun E, et al. Impact of patient navigation on timely cancer care: the Patient Navigation Research Program. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2014;106:dju115.
  3. American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer. Cancer program standards 2012: ensuring patient-centered care. V1.2.1. www.facs.org/~/media/files/quality%20programs/cancer/coc/programstandards2012.ashx. Accessed January 2, 2015.
  4. Pratt-Chapman ML, Willis LA, Masselink L. Core competencies for oncology patient navigators. J Oncol Navig Surviv. 2015;6:16-21.
  5. GW Cancer Institute. Oncology patient navigator training: the fundamentals. http://gwcehp.learnercommunity.com/cancer-institute. Accessed May 15, 2015.
  6. University of Michigan School of Public Health. Certificate vs certification. http://sph.umich.edu/distance/certificate_vs_certification.html. Accessed May 13, 2015.
  7. National Consortium of Breast Centers website. Certification. www2.bpnc.org/certification/. Accessed February 23, 2015.
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Last modified: August 10, 2023

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