Certification vs. Licensure

A common problem for those entering the healthcare professions is to define the difference between licensure and certification. This is further complicated by the variety of uses for these terms both in statute (law) and common vernacular (or language).

  • All of the information here is specific to Washington State and Bellevue College. Other locations or institutions may have different requirements, you must check with that location or institution for their requirements.
  • Licensure is the legal right and responsibility to engage in an activity or occupation. NONE of the Allied Health programs grant or lead to licensure.  Licensure for Allied Health programs is NOT available in Washington State.
  • Certification is the acknowledgement or assurance that an individual has satisfied and completed the requirements to be competent in an activity or occupation.
  • There are two types of certification for the Allied Health programs at Bellevue College.
    1. Upon successful completion of a program of study at Bellevue College, the College issues a certificate that acknowledges you have satisfied the requirements for an activity or profession. This certificate may NOT allow you to directly participate in that activity or occupation. (see #2)
    2. The State of Washington, Department of Health, is responsible for issuing professional certifications for Allied Health occupations. After completing a program at Bellevue College, you must apply to the Department of Health for professional certification in your occupation. Part of that application process is to demonstrate that you have received appropriate training and have demonstrated competency. This is accomplished by submitting the certification from Bellevue College. Once you are certified by the Department of Health, you are then allowed to participate in that activity or occupation.

Licensure defined:

Licensure may be defined as, “a permission granted by competent authority to engage in a business or occupation or in an activity otherwise unlawful”. Miriam-Webster

The federal government further defines licensure as “process by which an agency of government grants permission to persons to engage in a given profession or occupation by certifying that those licensed have attained the minimal degree of competency necessary to ensure that the public health, safety, and welfare will be reasonably well protected.” Duke

Finally, the Washington State Department of Health defines licensure as, “License,” “licensing,” and “licensure” mean permission to engage in a health profession which would otherwise be unlawful in the state in the absence of the permission. A license is granted to those individuals who meet prerequisite qualifications to perform prescribed health professional tasks and for the use of a particular title.” RCW 18.120.020

Certification defined:

Certification may be defined as, “a written assurance, or official representation, that some act has or has not been done, or some event occurred, or some legal formality been complied with.” Lawdictionary

The federal government has defined “certification” as the process by which a non-governmental organization grants recognition to an individual who has met predetermined qualifications specified by that organization. Duke

Finally, the Washington State Department of Health defines certification as, “‘Certificate’ and ‘certification’ mean a voluntary process by which a statutory regulatory entity grants recognition to an individual who (a) has met certain prerequisite qualifications specified by that regulatory entity, and (b) may assume or use ‘certified’ in the title or designation to perform prescribed health professional tasks.” RCW 18.120.020

So what does that mean?

If you are licensed to do something, for example practice medicine, then you have the legal authority to do that. Often this is something that would be illegal with out a license. Such is the case with medicine; it is illegal or unlawful to practice medicine with out a license.

If you are certified to do something, then you have been recognized as being qualified in that activity, however, you do not have the legal authority to actually do that with out authorization or delegation of a licensed individual.

As an example, in order to perform surgical procedures, you must be licensed to do so, most commonly a physician. If you have been certified to assist in surgical procedures, you are not allowed to perform surgery, however, you are allowed to assist under the direction of a licensed provider; again most commonly a physician.

How does this apply to the programs at Bellevue College?

Most of the healthcare programs at Bellevue College are professional / technical programs that prepare for certification in a specific profession.  The exception is our nursing program, which prepares for licensure in nursing (RN).

When you successfully complete a program at Bellevue College you are awarded a certificate for that program.  This certificate meets the federal definition of “the process by which a non-governmental organization grants recognition to an individual who has met predetermined qualifications specified by that organization”.  This certificate recognizes that you have met the qualifications for the profession.  It does NOT grant you permission or authority for the profession.

In order to function in the profession, you must still apply for certification with the jurisdiction that you are planning to work in.  In Washington State, for healthcare occupations, this is the Department of Health.

Once you have successfully applied for AND received certification from the Department of Health (again for Washington State) you are able to function in that profession under the authority or delegation of a licensed provider.

  • Students who graduate from Allied Health programs at Bellevue College are awarded a certificate that recognizes they have met the educational qualifications for a profession. This does NOT authorize them to function in a profession.
  • Graduates who complete the certification process with a jurisdiction (the Washington State Department of Health, for example) receive certification that authorizes them to function in a profession.