Explore the differences in responsibilities, qualifications, and opportunities for professional growth

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The career progression from a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) to a Registered Nurse (RN) represents a significant advancement in the healthcare field. While both roles are integral to providing patient care, there are notable differences in terms of responsibilities, qualifications, and opportunities for professional growth. A CNA is an entry-level healthcare professional who works under the supervision of registered nurses or licensed practical nurses. An RN is a licensed healthcare professional who has completed a nursing program and passed the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN).

Transitioning from a CNA to RN brings numerous benefits to an individual’s professional growth and opportunities. RNs have a greater level of autonomy and decision-making authority compared to CNAs. With advanced training and education, RNs take on more responsibilities in patient care, earn higher salaries due to their advanced qualifications and expanded responsibilities, and can choose to work in specialties such as pediatrics, geriatrics, or critical, among others. They can also pursue advanced nursing degrees, such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), which can lead to roles like nurse practitioner, nurse educator, nurse manager, or nurse researcher.

Learn how to become a Registered Nurse if you’re ready to begin your journey or explore how to become a Nursing Assistant if you want to experience the nursing profession before becoming an RN.

CNA vs. RN: What’s the Difference?

A CNA and an RN can be compared to the hands and the heart of a healthcare team. CNAs are the frontline caregivers, delivering immediate and practical assistance with a gentle touch. An RN is like the heart, serving as the core of the healthcare team and overseeing patient care. Just as the hands and the heart work together harmoniously, CNAs and RNs collaborate to ensure patients receive comprehensive and compassionate care. While CNAs focus on the immediate physical needs of patients, RNs provide the expertise and leadership necessary for effective healthcare delivery.

What is a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

CNAs work under the supervision of registered nurses or licensed practical nurses and provide essential support to the nursing team and contribute to the overall well-being and comfort of patients. CNAs play a crucial role in providing direct patient care and assisting with activities of daily living. Their responsibilities typically include:

  • Assisting patients with bathing, dressing, grooming, and toileting.
  • Helping patients with mobility, transfers, and positioning.
  • Taking and recording vital signs, such as temperature, blood pressure, pulse, and respiratory rate.
  • Assisting with meal planning, feeding, and monitoring nutritional intake.
  • Providing emotional support and companionship to patients.
  • Assisting nurses with turning and repositioning patients to prevent bedsores.
  • Documenting and reporting any changes in patients’ conditions to the nursing staff.
  • Assisting in the maintenance of a clean and safe patient environment.

The educational pathway to becoming a CNA requires the completion of a state-approved nursing assistant training program. This program can vary in length from a few weeks to a few months. After completing the training, they must pass a competency evaluation, which includes a written examination and a practical skills test. Once certified, CNAs can work in a variety of healthcare settings under the supervision of licensed nurses.

What is a Registered Nurse (RN)

RNs have an expanded role and increased responsibilities compared to CNAs. RNs have a greater degree of autonomy and decision-making authority in patient care. They are accountable for the outcomes of their nursing interventions and are responsible for the overall management of patients’ health conditions. Some of their key responsibilities include:

  • Assessing patients’ conditions, including physical, psychological, and social aspects.
  • Developing and implementing individualized care plans.
  • Administering medications, including oral, intravenous, and injectable drugs, while ensuring safe dosage and monitoring for adverse reactions.
  • Performing treatments and procedures, such as wound care, IV therapy, and catheter insertion.
  • Collaborating with interdisciplinary healthcare teams to provide coordinated and holistic care.
  • Educating patients and their families about health conditions, treatment plans, and self-care techniques.
  • Advocating for patients’ needs and ensuring their rights and preferences are respected.
  • Participating in healthcare decision-making, policy development, and quality improvement initiatives.
  • Supervising and delegating tasks to CNAs and other support staff as appropriate.

The educational pathways for becoming an RN requires the completion of a nursing program, which can be an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree. ADN programs generally take two to three years to complete, while BSN programs usually take four years. After graduation, aspiring RNs must pass the NCLEX-RN, a standardized national examination, to obtain their nursing license. RNs can then pursue additional certifications in specialized areas of nursing practice.

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How Do I Go from CNA to RN?

CNAs who aspire to become RNs have several educational pathways to choose from. These pathways include diploma programs, associate degree in nursing (ADN) programs, and bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) programs. Each option has its own advantages and considerations.

Diploma Programs
Offered by hospitals or specialized nursing schools, diploma programs often have a more focused curriculum and are shorter in duration compared to ADN or BSN programs, taking around 1-2 years to complete. While they provide the necessary education to become an RN, they may have limited transferability if students wish to pursue further education, such as an advanced degree.

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) Programs
ADN programs provide a solid foundation in nursing education and prepare students to sit for the NCLEX-RN examination. ADN programs typically include both nursing courses and general education courses, providing a well-rounded education. ADN graduates can start working as RNs and may have opportunities for career advancement or continue their education by pursuing a BSN later.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Programs
BSN programs are offered by colleges and universities and usually take four years to complete. BSN programs provide a more comprehensive education, including nursing courses, general education courses, and a focus on leadership, critical thinking, and research. BSN graduates are often preferred for many nursing positions and have better opportunities for career advancement.

Admission requirements and prerequisites for nursing programs vary, but they generally include a high school diploma or equivalent, minimum GPA requirements, completion of prerequisite courses, such as biology, chemistry, anatomy, and psychology, and satisfactory scores on entrance exams, such as the SAT or ACT. For CNAs who are working or have other time commitments, pursuing online or part-time nursing programs can be a viable option. Many nursing programs offer online or hybrid formats, allowing individuals to complete coursework at their own pace and accommodate their work schedules.

Education and Licensing Requirements for RNs

Nursing programs consist of a combination of academic coursework and hands-on clinical training. The coursework covers essential knowledge in areas such as anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, medical-surgical nursing, pediatric nursing, obstetric nursing, psychiatric nursing, community health nursing, and nursing ethics. Students also learn about evidence-based practice, nursing research, healthcare informatics, and leadership in nursing.

Clinical training provides students with practical experience in healthcare settings. Under the supervision of clinical instructors and preceptors, students apply their theoretical knowledge in real-world scenarios, gaining skills in patient assessment, medication administration, wound care, and nursing interventions. Clinical rotations may take place in hospitals, clinics, long-term care facilities, and community health centers, allowing students to work with diverse patient populations and healthcare professionals.

The NCLEX-RN (National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses) is a standardized examination that aspiring RNs must pass to obtain licensure. To apply for RN licensure, individuals must follow the licensure application process set by the state board of nursing. While the specific requirements can vary by state, the process generally involves the following steps:

  • Applicants must complete an application form provided by the state board of nursing, which requires personal information, educational background, and disclosure of any criminal history or disciplinary actions.
  • Official transcripts from the nursing program attended must be sent directly to the state board of nursing to verify the completion of educational requirements.
  • Applicants may need to undergo fingerprinting and background checks to ensure they meet the character and fitness standards for licensure. This process is done to protect the public and maintain the integrity of the nursing profession.
  • Applicants are required to pay a licensure application fee, which varies by state.

After becoming an RN, individuals have the opportunity to pursue additional certifications in specialized areas of nursing. These certifications typically require additional education, clinical experience, and passing a certification exam.

To get started on the path to becoming a nurse, explore the Bachelor of Science Nursing (BSN) Program at Eagle Gate College. Or, if you already work as an RN with an associate degree, consider our RN-to-BSN Program to advance your career opportunities.

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Practical Experience and Bridging the Gap

Practical experience as a CNA is highly valuable and serves as a solid foundation for transitioning to an RN role. For example, CNAs have direct and continuous interaction with patients, providing them with fundamental hands-on knowledge of patient care, which establishes a strong foundation for understanding patient needs and the practical aspects of care. CNAs also develop excellent communication and interpersonal skills through their interactions with patients, families, and the healthcare team. Additionally, CNAs work closely with RNs, LPNs, and other healthcare professionals, fostering teamwork and collaboration. They learn the importance of effective teamwork, which translates well into the RN role, where collaboration with colleagues, effective delegation, and coordination of care is essential.

To bridge the gap between the CNA and RN roles, CNAs can consider seeking additional responsibilities. This may involve assisting with certain nursing procedures, participating in care planning discussions, or taking on leadership roles within the CNA team. CNAs can request opportunities to shadow RNs, which can help CNAs gain exposure to different nursing specialties and assess their interest in specific areas. In addition, they can pursue further education and professional development opportunities, including pursuing certifications relevant to their area of interest or attending workshops and conferences related to nursing practice. The foundation provided by CNA experience, combined with a proactive approach, can accelerate their growth and success in the nursing profession.

CNA vs. RN: Salary and Job Outlook

There is a notable difference in salary* between CNAs and RNs. Transitioning from a CNA to an RN role offers significant earning potential and financial benefits. The exact salary* range can vary depending on several factors, but on average, RNs earn much higher salaries.

CNA Salary and Job Outlook

According to the BLS, the average annual wage for CNAs in the United States was about $30,000 per year or about $15 dollars per hour. Employment of nursing assistants is projected to grow 5 percent from 2021 to 2031, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

The job outlook for CNAs is positive and is related to the outlook for RNs. Meaning, that as the demand for nurses increases, the demand for CNAs who support nurses also increases. For example, as the baby-boom population ages, nursing assistants will be needed to help RNs care for an increasing number of older people who have chronic or progressive diseases.

Salaries for CNAs can vary based on experience, geographic location, education, and work setting, such as whether a CAN is based in a hospital, nursing care facility, or works in home healthcare services.

RN Salary and Job Outlook

According to the BLS, the average annual wage for RNs in the United States was about $89,000 or about $43 per hour. Employment of registered nurses is projected to grow 6 percent from 2021 to 2031, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

The job outlook for Registered Nurses (RNs) is projected to be strong, with a growing demand for nursing professionals. Several factors contribute to the positive job outlook for RNs, such as an aging population, advancements in medical technology, and an increased emphasis on preventive care. Overall, the job outlook for RNs is promising, with a growing demand for nursing professionals in various healthcare settings. This demand not only offers job security but also provides opportunities for career advancement, specialization, and professional growth.

Salaries for RNs can vary significantly based on experience, geographic location, specialization, education, and work setting. It is important to note that these factors can vary across different regions and healthcare systems. Additionally, salary* structures and benefits can be influenced by collective bargaining agreements, unionization, or local market dynamics.

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Benefits of Going from CNA to RN

Becoming a Registered Nurse (RN) offers numerous professional and personal advantages. The ability to provide direct patient care, contribute to positive health outcomes, and witness the impact of your interventions can bring immense job satisfaction. RNs generally have a higher level of autonomy and decision-making authority and can pursue various leadership roles that offer the chance to influence nursing practice. Also, transitioning from a CNA to an RN often results in a significant increase in income along with a wider range of career opportunities. Specialization, such as pediatrics, critical care, or oncology, enhances marketability and career prospects. Additionally, RNs can further advance their careers by pursuing advanced degrees in nursing, such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Advanced degrees provide the knowledge and skills to influence nursing practice on a broader scale and contribute to healthcare system improvements.

Embark on the journey from CNA to RN

The benefits of transitioning from a CNA to an RN are numerous. They may include increased job satisfaction, autonomy, and opportunities for leadership roles. RNs also enjoy a higher income, improved benefits, and expanded career opportunities, such as specialization and advanced practice nursing. Pursuing advanced degrees in nursing can further enhance career prospects.

CNAs considering this career progression should explore the educational options available and make informed decisions based on their individual circumstances and aspirations. Researching nursing programs, understanding admission requirements, and comparing program offerings can help in choosing the right educational pathway.

Success in the nursing field requires personal dedication, hard work, and ongoing professional development. Continuous learning, staying updated with current healthcare practices, and seeking opportunities for growth and specialization are crucial for long-term success as an RN. With the right education, dedication, and ongoing development, CNAs can embark on a journey that leads to increased opportunities, professional growth, and the ability to make a positive impact on the lives of patients and communities.