Healthcare remains one of the fastest-growing employment providers, with incredible job growth potential. In addition to offering lucrative salaries and job security, one of the biggest appeals of the healthcare field is that aspiring applicants can hold an advanced degree to secure employment.
Thanks to numerous roles and responsibilities that require only a few months of training, anyone with a primary diploma can begin a career in healthcare through only a few months of training.
The medical assistant (MA) and certified nursing assistant (CNA) fields are examples of this. And yes, despite the similarity in their names, both jobs are distinct. If you want to give either of these fields a chance but are confused by what they entail, you don’t have to worry.
Below we take a deep dive into each, outlining their scopes, differences, salary, job outlook, and educational requirements.
Medical Assistant versus Certified Nursing Assistant - Overview
Who is a Medical Assistant?
Medical assistants play a crucial role in healthcare as they are one of the few healthcare workers who get to work in both direct patient care and administrative duties. Many consider medical assistants to be the link between patients and doctors, and their role in both areas reflects this sentiment. They help facilitate communication between doctors and patients, record vitals, and prepare blood samples. Administratively, they help schedule appointments, maintain records, and record new information.
Who is a Certified Nursing Assistant?
A CNA’s job is entirely geared towards direct patient care, requiring minimal administrative commitment. Among other things, you can find a certified nursing assistant helping a patient take a shower, have their bath, eat their meals, get dressed, or get transferred from a bed to a wheelchair and vice versa.
Medical Assistant versus CNA - Roles & Responsibilities
Many confuse both roles as synonymous to each other thanks to the similarity in their vocabulary. In reality, however, medical and certified nursing assistants only share a couple of tasks: • To take and record vital signs and • To support other healthcare staff. Generally, this is where the similarities end in terms of duties. Of course, respective employers may include additional shared tasks depending on the facility.
Duties & Tasks
Tasks & Duties of a Medical Assistant
While the specific duties of a medical assistant may vary depending on the particular facility and location in which they work, generally, a medical assistant is expected to perform the following task in a healthcare environment:
- Maintain and update medical records
- Educate patients on the appropriate information they have to know
- Oversee the preparation of examination rooms
- Help doctors with minor procedures
- Help administer medications to patients on doctor’s orders
- Help administer vaccines to patients
- Help collect blood samples
- Help arrange lab work such as x-rays and tests when the doctor orders.
A medical assistant must also be prepared to take on assignments given by the doctor during the day.
Tasks & Duties of a CNA
The tasks and responsibilities of a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) can vary depending on the specific facility in which they work. However, some duties are commonly expected of CNAs in most healthcare settings. These may include:
- Helping patients through various daily living activities (ADLs) typically include having their meals, moving from one place to another, having baths, and getting dressed.
- Helping patients who are unable to move independently to transfer between beds, chairs, and other locations
- Serving meals and assisting with feeding patients who are unable to do so on their own
- Organizing supplies and noting shortages or low levels of supplies
- Observing patients for changes in mood or other signs of distress and reporting any concerns to the nursing staff
- Maintaining a clean and orderly environment, including changing linens and cleaning patient rooms.
Medical Assistant Work Environment
Medical assistants are often found working in a clinic setting. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 57 percent of medical assistants work in a physician’s office. 15% work in hospitals, while the rest are in outpatient facilities and chiropractors’ offices.
Incidentally, most facilities where medical assistants are found operate mainly during the day. For this reason, it is rare to find medical assistants working night shifts or during holidays.
Certified Nursing Assistant Work Environment
Certified nursing assistants are typically found in any healthcare facility but are more notably concentrated in those where patients stay for a long time. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that about 37 percent of certified nursing assistants work in nursing care facilities, while 11 percent work in assisted living facilities.
An even fewer percentage can be found in home healthcare. Interestingly, certified nursing assistants are more likely to be found in hospitals than medical assistants.
Also, thanks to the round-the-clock nature of their duties, certified nursing assistants are more likely to work overnight, on the weekend, and during holiday shifts.
Education Requirements for a Medical Assistant
As mentioned earlier, one of the most appealing factors of being a medical assistant or certified nursing assistant is that you don’t have to study for four years to begin a career in these fields.
Those looking to become medical assistant’s be glad to know that you don’t even need a postsecondary degree. It should be said, however, that most employers prefer candidates who at least have undergone a medical assistant training program.
These programs teach the fundamentals of healthcare provision, including familiarizing students with critical medical terminologies. Also, they may take 9 to 12 months before completion, with only a handful taking up to 2 years.
Education Requirements for a Certified Nursing Assistant
To become a certified nursing assistant, you don’t need a four-year bachelor’s degree, but you must become certified - as the name implies. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, prospective applicants must also gain clinical work experience.
The state must approve CNA training programs that usually last six (6) to twelve (12) weeks.
Once the education is complete, a state-mandated competency examination must be taken and passed before certification becomes official.
Licensing and Certification
There are no licensing requirements for either medical assistants or certified nursing assistants. As mentioned earlier, however, there is a certification requirement for CNAs.
Medical assistants don’t need certification but may choose to do so if necessary. Also, although states don’t require certification for medical assistants, it is common for an employer to do so.
Generally, there are two forms of certifications for medical assistants. The first is the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) credential, which applies to MAs who have completed an accreditation course from the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA).
The second, the Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) credential, applies to MAs who have completed on-the-job training in the military or as part of a formal medical assistant training program.
Any field in healthcare requires the acquisition of new technical and medical skills. Below are some of the skills we identified as most essential for MAs and CNAs.
Skill Requirements for a Medical Assistant
- Measurement of vital signs
- Injection administration
- Scheduling appointments
- Familiarity with EKG (electrocardiogram)
- Administering CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation).
Skills Requirements for a Certified Nursing Assistant Skill Requirement
- Assistance with daily living activities (ADL)
- Measurement of vital signs
- Home health assistance
- Ability to facilitate and maintain clean environments
Job Outlook and Salary
Medical Assistant Salary and Job Outlook
While salary alone does not do a good job, it is an essential factor to consider. Those interested in working as medical assistants will be glad that the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a growing job opportunity rate faster than the national average.
The annual median wage for medical assistants was $32,160 as of 2020.
CNA Salary and Job Outlook
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020, the median annual wage for a certified nursing assistant was $30,850. Those who worked in hospitals earned $32,160, while those who worked in government earned slightly higher at $37,240.
Bottom Line - Which Job is Right for You?
As we’ve seen above, there are huge upsides to pursuing a medical or certified nursing assistant career. Both jobs offer growing opportunity rates and are easy to enter without spending years attaining postsecondary degrees.
While both upsides are apparent, deciding between them is less so. Ultimately, the path you choose to follow depends on you, but certain dispositions and qualities may help you gravitate toward one over another.
A career as a certified nursing assistant is usually more appealing to those who desire a fast-paced, hands-on experience as a healthcare provider. It is also great for those who are solid team players or aspire to an LPN or RN role in the future.
Conversely, those who possess excellent communication and organizational skills, are great with technology, and prefer being part of small teams rather than large ones may be more comfortable becoming medical assistants.