The Difference Between a Medical Assistant and a Certified Nursing Assistant Job

As a prehealth student looking for patient-facing clinical experience, you might encounter different job titles when searching for your gap year job. 

This may leave you wondering “What is the difference between a nursing assistant and a medical assistant? Or are they the same thing?” Both provide patient care and they sound like they might be similar but there can be major differences. They are both support roles, but they are typically supporting different healthcare professionals. CNAs support and assist nurses while medical assistants typically support and assist doctors or advanced practice practitioners (PAs and NPs). Historically the role of CNA traces its roots back to the military hospitals of World War 1 when the American Red Cross created the volunteer nurse aide role. Medical assistants were not formally recognized until 1955 when the Kansas Medical Assistant Society was formed. 

Nursing Assistant

A nursing assistant (CNA) is a direct member of the health care team. Generally, a CNA works under the direction of a nurse (Registered nurse -RN; or Licensed Practical Nurse -LPN). A CNA provides hands-on basic nursing care to patients in a variety of healthcare settings. CNAs typically obtain vital signs, weight and height measurements, and enter these in the clinical chart. Depending on the setting/specialty they may also assist with basic nursing tasks such as bathing, dressing, eating, and toileting for people who cannot do these tasks alone. Generally, a CNA is required to have a high school diploma or GED. 

Requirements for CNA vary state by state. You will likely take a training course which is usually a minimum of 75 hours and can take between 4-12 weeks to complete, and then take a state assessment such as the National Nurse Aide Assessment Program. The best way to find out more about your local options may be to contact a local community college or nursing program or the hospital department in which you hope to work. Salary can range between $12-$18/hr.

Because CNAs typically assist nurses they are found in settings with large nursing staffs such as hospitals. Typical practice settings include inpatient or skilled nursing facilities and you are typically overseen and delegated tasks by nursing staff. However, you may find positions in other locations such as an  outpatient surgical center, adult day care programs, hospice, home health services, or correctional facilities. 

Duties might include: 

  • Helping patients with activities of daily living (ADLs), such as bathing and feeding patients. 
  • Lifting or repositioning patients who are unable to move
  • Serving meals and helping feed patients who need assistance eating
  • Dressing wounds
  • Changing linens and making sure rooms are clean and well stocked
  • Answering call lights
  • Organizing supplies
  • Observing patients for changes in mood, skin quality, and ability and making sure that these changes are reported to the nursing staff
  • Communicating with family members, nurses, and other healthcare staff about patients
  • Providing care and companionship to patients
  • Taking on other duties as assigned and overseen by nurses
  • Measuring and recording vital signs. 
  • One-on-one monitoring for a patient

Certified Medical Assistant 

A medical assistant is also a direct member of the healthcare team. Medical assistants are often the liaison between the doctor and the patient and typically work under the direction of the doctor or Advanced practice practitioner. Medical assistants may be able to administer medications, and vaccines, give breathing treatments, and assist with minor procedures in addition to recording vital signs.  Medical assistant jobs often include additional administrative duties. 

Medical assistants typically participate in both administrative and clinical tasks. The specific tasks will vary quite a bit depending on the setting/specialty and could include administering immunizations or medications or even assisting with procedures. The American Association of Medical Assistants undertakes an occupational analysis of the medical assisting profession every five years that outlines the most commonly reported taks. Generally, a medical assistant is required to have a high school diploma or GED. 

The scope of care for medical assistants will vary from state to state. If you plan to become a “certified” medical assistant You will likely take a certification course which can vary from a few months to two years and then take the certification exam. 

Salary can range between $12-$18/hr.

Because medical assistants typically assist doctors, they are usually found in work environments such as private physician offices or clinics. 

Duties might include: 

Administrative Duties: 

  • Using computer applications and the electronic health record
  • Updating and filing patient medical records
  • Arranging for hospital admissions and laboratory services
  • Handling correspondence, billing, and bookkeeping
  • Answering telephones
  • Welcoming patients
  • Coding and/or filling out insurance forms
  • Scheduling appointments

Clinical duties:

  • Preparing exam rooms
  • Taking medical histories
  • Explaining treatment procedures to patients
  • Collecting and preparing laboratory specimens
  • Instructing patients about medication and special diets
  • Transmitting prescription refills as directed
  • Removing sutures and changing dressings
  • Preparing and administering medications as directed by the physician
  • Preparing patients for examination
  • Assisting the physician during exams
  • Performing basic laboratory tests
  • Drawing blood (document number of phlebotomy sticks)
  • Taking electrocardiograms
  • Assisting with minor procedures
  • Administering vaccines
  • Phlebotomy
  • Arranging for lab work, xrays and tests as ordered by the doctor

Both positions are vital members of the healthcare team and include recording and taking vital signs so will get you the clinical experiences you need to improve your candidacy for medical or PA school. You may also find that depending on the employer there may be other overlaps between the two roles. 

On average medical assistants make nearly $7,000 more yearly than certified nursing assistants (CNA). In 2021, CNAs made approximately $14.56 per hour, while medical assistants made an average of $17.88 per hour.

CNAMedical Assistant
EducationApproved programs vary by stateCertificate, diploma, or associated degree
Duration of trainingSix to twelve weeks3 months to two years
Required trainingState approved CNA program at hospital or CNA schoolMultiple private or public options. 
Certifying agenciesState certifying exam (can sometimes transfer between states)CMA, RMA
Is certification requiredYes, written and practical exam No 
Supervised byNursesDoctors or Advanced Practice Practitioners
Median Annual Salary$30, 310 in 2021$37,190 in 2021
Typical work environmentHospitals, skilled nursing facilities, hospice., home care , rehab facilities, adult day caresOutpatient medical offices and settings
Larger teamsSmaller teams 
ProsFaster training. Spend more one to one time with patients at the bedside Experience both administrative office procedures  and patient care; more patient education. Can choose a specific specialty of interest. 
ConsMore physically demanding.  Lower salaryIncreased multitasking for multiple roles 
Professional associations NAHCAAAMA

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