American Association of Critical Care Nurses

American Association of Critical Care Nurses

Bringing Critical Care and Progressive Care Nursing Expertise to Patients


Aliso Viejo, CA

Certification, Healthcare

Table of Contents

aacn customer success


The Critical Care and Progressive Care Nursing fields have long valued certifications as the benchmark for confirming professional skills and substantiating the lifesaving work that nurses do on the front lines every day. “I grew up knowing that I would become certified as a critical care nurse and ultimately a progressive care nurse, because that’s how nurses who value their profession validate their expertise,” says JoAnne Konick-McMahan, PCCN, Certification Practice Specialist at the American Association of Critical Care Nurses. “AACN certifications are what preceptors encourage younger nurses to include in their future goals,” she says. “We pass that process along.”

Acute/Critical Care and Progressive Care certifications are also valuable credentials to hospital administrators, and vital as a matter of public safety, explains Kristen Thomas, Certification Manager at AACN. “These credentials assure managers and administrators in terms of the skills and standards that certified nurses are qualified to bring to patient care.” As healthcare becomes increasingly demanding, variable, and complex, validating clinical excellence with comprehensive credentialing is more important than ever.

The Challenge

After working with the multi-modal test administration and delivery vendor, AMP, for nearly two decades, the trusted and longstanding partner for AACN was acquired by PSI in 2016. A major factor in how well the new relationship would withstand this transition was how well PSI could maximise the impact of the certified nurses who serve as Subject Matter Experts during AACN’s annual examination development process. “The respect that they come away from that experience with is paramount,” says Thomas. “The incredible work that goes into a certification exam development process, and the rigor of that process, makes the subject matter experts, who are certificants themselves, even more proud.”

As a leading developer and administrator of psychometrically sound, legally defensible certification exams, PSI is driven to carry out an exam development process that meets the precise needs of our valued partners. “Our folks are always impressed by the psychometrician and test developers’ abilities to work with our experienced and often outspoken group while maintaining rigorous standards,” says Konick-McMahan. “And I know that the SMEs go home and share about their experience and recommend it to others who meet the criteria to participate in that very process in the future.”

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Delivering over 28,000 AACN exams annually

PSI is committed to adapting to our partners’ needs amid the COVID-19 pandemic and calibrates every phase of the exam development process with their safety and security in mind. “We’ve been very happy to learn that this level of flexibility is just the way that PSI psychometricians work,” adds Konick-McMahan. “What can be done ahead of time is done ahead of time, what the SMEs can do on their own is done on their own, and what needs to be done in person or via videoconference is scheduled accordingly. Our SMEs are very appreciative of that level of collaboration because it tells them how much we value them and their work.”

In today’s everchanging world, PSI’s commitment to standards of excellence remains constant. “In the COVID-19 environment we had to adopt proven safety procedures within PSI’s test center network, but we still have to meet our rigorous accreditation standards,” explains Thomas. “We rely on the psychometricians to know beyond any doubt that the changes that we make to these programs will still be compliant with NCCA and ABSNC, who we’re accredited through. The fact that they keep that front of mind makes PSI a very valuable partner.”

psi client testimonial

We’ve developed a relationship with PSI where everyone’s thoughts and desires in support of our candidates are valued.

JoAnne Konick-McMahan

PCCN, Certification Practice Specialist, AACN

psi client testimonial

They are willing to have the same voice. As a vendor, PSI could easily have their own separate voice that they’d ask us to pivot towards. But PSI is always willing to match us and meet us where we need them to.

Kristen Thomas

Certification Manager, AACN

The Solution

AACN prioritizes cutting-edge security and utilizes every advancement that PSI offers to ensure that their proprietary content and their certificants’ personally identifiable information are always protected. Creating quality candidate experiences for AACN certificants has also meant maintaining the customer service values that reflect AACN’s promise of excellence to their candidates and ultimately to the patients in their care. “PSI’s implementation of Zendesk customer service software is something I’m very proud of. It has really revolutionized our communication with PSI about customer complaints,” explains Thomas. “It’s really helped my staff track incidents, get timely, thorough responses, and record resolutions. The fact that PSI brought that forward as a problem-solving solution was just incredible.”

Understanding the AACN Audience

PSI’s Candidate Services team, who are responsible for providing great experiences for the millions of test takers who come to PSI every year to register, schedule their exam appointment, and take their tests, is a primary contributor to overall candidate satisfaction. The processes that they have established and honed – from candidate registration and special accommodations to general information requests and rescheduling – shapes the entire candidate journey and reflects the values of our partners. “It’s always been important that any of our vendors understand not only who our audience is, but how we view our audience and the way that we want to service our certificants and non-certificants,” says Thomas. “We handle them with care because they are doing immensely important work in the world every day, and we want them to come to us as a source of information, support, and calm. We need partners that understand that, and PSI has always done such a great job meeting the needs of our customers exactly the way that we try to meet their needs. PSI is very much in the DNA of AACN.”

psi client success

Keeping It Real

The value of Acute/Critical Care Nursing certifications, like CCRN and PCCN among others, is that they absolutely reflect real world practice. “Nurses practice with our feet on the ground,” explains Konick-McMahan, “and we’ll tell you what real life is like. If we’re going to take the time to complete a 150-question exam, it had better reflect clinical practice. If it doesn’t, we’re going to let the world know.”

“There’s this myth in the certification space in general,” adds Thomas, “Oh, it’s just a select group of individuals who create these exams; people who have been out of practice for a while and think they know what’s best. But our partnership with PSI seeks to dispel those myths.” During each 5-year exam development cycle, formal job analysis meetings are held in addition to dedicated sessions for standard setting, item review, and exam review. To that end, Thomas adds, “We do everything we can to inform and educate our audience about how the process works, and that these exams have been developed by their peers.”

PSI has established an approach to the peer-developed examination process with the understanding that certification candidates – future acute and critical care nurses – may one day be involved in the development process themselves, if they choose to volunteer their time as SMEs in future exam development sessions. “The feedback from everyone on the Practice Analysis Task Force of Acute Care Nurse Practitioners was about the pride they had in such a good, solid, fair – fair, a word that they used a lot – process in developing the exam and the survey,” says Konick-McMahan. “These are ten, high-level, intense people who will tell you if they’re not impressed by a process.”

Meaningful Candidate Milestones

“I was blown away when I attended our annual conference for the first time shortly after joining the organization, by how many people said, ‘Wow, that was the most challenging – but fair – test I’ve ever taken,’” says Thomas. For candidates who earn an AACN certification, the achievement represents a personal as well as a professional milestone. “They wear it like a badge of honour because they’ve joined this elite group of nurses who show the world that continuing education is important, I’ve validated this knowledge, and I’m going to keep re-certifying to show that this is an important part of my career,” explains Thomas. “Really, it’s critical to the healthcare profession’s mission of patient protection.”

Meeting Today’s Examination Security Needs

Top among the successes that have transpired over the course of the four-year partnership has been transitioning AACN’s flagship exams to Linear On-the-Fly Testing or LOFT. Often viewed as a solid compromise between linear fixed-form delivery and computerized adaptive testing, LOFT maintains the equivalence of the set of items that every examinee sees while attempting to reduce item exposure and enhance test security. “PSI has been able to offer us added security features, while always keeping standards of practice front of mind and allowing AACN to make the decisions that are right for our organization,” Thomas explains. “We were very confident moving away from the static forms in order to increase exam security.”

PSI is committed to upholding examination security throughout our global test center network. “We know that our candidates feel secure at PSI test centers. Often, they are surprised at the level of security of the proctors, who make sure that there is no content sharing or cheating going on,” says Thomas. “It gives me peace of mind to know that PSI’s team, who are watching these exams take place day in and day out, are being vigilant and going above and beyond to protect our proprietary information.”

Upon reopening PSI’s Test Center Network after COVID-19-related closures, PSI initiated a health survey questionnaire for candidates to complete prior to testing in order to limit exposure for test takers, proctors, and Test Center Administrators. “We were able to add in some language, a clause about PPE related to our practitioners, to the candidate health questionnaire,” says Thomas. “That was vital to our business, and PSI worked with us to make the adjustment within a few days of us bringing it to their attention.”

The Outcome

Doing the Right Thing

PSI delivers over 28,000 AACN examinations annually to a diverse and motivated candidate pool. “With that number of candidates, issues arise all the time that are beyond anyone’s control,” explains Thomas. “What matters in the end is that you show the customer that you value them. The fact that PSI recognizes that is very meaningful. PSI always makes it right.”

System migrations, and transitioning new clients onto PSI’s network requires an enormous coordinated effort, and it is intricate, demanding work at the best of times. “As we were transitioning to PSI from our previous vendor there was a bit of a hiccough, especially regarding internet bandwidth at PSI’s testing sites,” Thomas affirms. “But the responsiveness of the PSI technology and support teams was incredible. Technical and service issues were prioritized and fixed very quickly. In fact, we met weekly until things got better, and the team could not have been more communicative. Since then, we’ve had great reports from candidates about their test center experience and we are confident that Candidate Services is following up in the appropriate way on any candidate concerns.” PSI handles critical system migrations – like bringing clients onto the latest version of PSI Dimensions, the best-in-class test delivery platform – with the same determination and focus on client care.

A Partnership for the Future

In light of COVID-19, many organizations, including AACN, are discussing state-of-the-art proctoring modalities, namely online proctoring, which reduces or eliminates the need for in-person testing. “We’re trying to figure out how that would work with accreditation standards, and keep AACN in good standing,” says Thomas. “It’s a matter of moving with the industry, but in a way that makes sense for AACN and our audience.”

“We’ve developed a relationship with PSI where everyone’s thoughts and desires in support of our candidates are valued,” Konick-McMahan explains. “It’s about mutual sharing of goals and figuring out the best way to reach those goals.”

Over the span of several years, PSI and AACN’s partnership has grown based on mutual respect. Expertise on both sides is crucial to meet the kind of rigor that AACN expects. “PSI are big-picture thinkers in terms of partnership,” says Thomas. “They are willing to have the same voice. As a vendor, PSI could easily have their own separate voice that they’d ask us to pivot towards. But PSI is always willing to match us and meet us where we need them to.”

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