Nursing CEU's vs Contact Hours: What's the Difference?

Kathy Quan RN BSN PHN - 02/01/18

With the eye always on improving quality of patient care and outcomes, the healthcare industry has focused on a lifelong learning process. The philosophy of Continuing Education is to enhance professional practice as well as to learn about advances in healthcare all in the interest of professional development to improve the quality of patient care and outcomes.

Patients trust nurses to keep them safe, provide them with equitable and evidence-based care and treatments, and guide them on the path to an improved health status. It isn’t a new concept; Florence Nightingale instilled the idea of continuing education goals into nurses nearly 200 years ago. The first recorded continuing education course for nurses dates back to 1894. 

Continuing Education Requirements Vary by State

Today, 17 states do not require CE for nurses. The 33 states that do require CE have a wide variety of requirements from 5 contact hours for full time nurses to 30 contact hours in 2 years. Some require specific courses, and others allow nurses to pick all of their CE courses. Some states also require nurses to work a minimum number of hours as a nurse within the licensure period. All courses must be approved by the state’s Board of Nursing and must be relevant to the nursing profession. The BON also approves the number of CE credits allowed for a course. 

Contact Hour Developed as Standard Measure 

Despite all the variations in state requirements, a standard was developed to determine how continuing education credits would be measured. This measure was designated as Contact Hours. One contact hour is equal to 50-60 minutes of actual clock time spent in a board-approved course or activity in the classroom with an instructor. One continuing education unit (ceu) or credit is equal to 10 contact hours; meaning it requires 10 clock hours to complete.  If the course offers Ceus, you need to multiply the number by 10 to determine the number of contact hours. For instance, 3 ceus equal 30 contact hours which will require 30 hours of study to compete the course and posttest. The CE credits are only awarded upon the successful completion of a posttest or designated validation. 

Calculate Contact Hours for College Credits 

Nurses working towards advanced degrees can be awarded contact hours for nursing related courses based on the college credits offered for a course. Ten contact hours of nursing CE are allowed for each quarter hour of academic credit and 15 contact hours of nursing CE per one semester hour of academic credit. A 3-quarter-hour course would equal 30 contact hours and 45 contact hours for a 3-semester-hour course. CE credits may or may not be carried over from one renewal period to another depending on state regulations. Check with your BON.

Continuing Education for nurses came into vogue long before the Internet therefore initially CE credits had to be earned sitting in a physical setting learning or participating in an activity with a specific set of instructors specifically educated in how and what to teach. CE has evolved a long way from those early beginnings. Nursing journals branched out into offering some of the first home-study CE courses. The posttest was mailed in and graded, and a certificate returned by mail. Today, in addition to brick and mortar study, courses and exams can be taken online, and certificates printed immediately. Employers can apply for a provider number and offer ceus for many of their mandated or optional staff education courses.