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Medical Assistant vs. Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

Discover the Differences in Duties, Responsibilities, Schooling, Certifications, Salary, and Job Outlook

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While Medical Assistants (MAs) and Certified Nursing Assistants (CNA) may work together in the same setting, they fulfill different roles in the world of healthcare. CNAs focus more on providing the care and assistance that patients need in their everyday life, such as eating, bathing, taking medications, and physical therapy. Whereas, medical assistants focus on helping the doctors and nurses prepare and treat the patient.

If you’re thinking about starting a career in healthcare, becoming a Medical Assistant is one of the fastest ways to get your foot in the door. The need for qualified healthcare workers has never been greater, and the opportunities for employment have never been more numerous. However, with so many career options available, you may be uncertain which role is best for you—given your goals, preferences, lifestyle, and strengths and weaknesses.

This article provides a head-to-head comparison of a Medical Assistant and a Certified Nursing Assistant. You will discover how each of these healthcare professionals have their own job responsibilities, educational requirements, job outlook, and earning potential.

If you’re interested in becoming an MA or CNA, we hope the information provided here will help you understand your options and find the most rewarding and satisfying healthcare career for your future.

Click here to read our comprehensive guide on how to become a Medical Assistant.

Medical Assistant vs. Certified Nursing Assistant: Definition

What is a Medical Assistant?

Medical Assistants (MAs) play an important and expanding role in our healthcare system. MAs take on administrative duties such as maintaining patient records, bookkeeping, and billing and insurance processing. They also take on clinical responsibilities such as preparing patients for procedures, performing lab tests, administering medications, drawing blood samples, and other tasks under the supervision of a doctor or nurse. Without MAs, many of the essential examinations and procedures would not be possible, and doctors and nurses would have less time for treating patients.

What is a Certified Nursing Assistant?

Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs), sometimes referred to as nursing aides or nursing assistants, provide basic care and help patients with the activities of daily living. CNAs work as part of a healthcare team under the supervision of licensed practical or licensed vocational nurses and registered nurses. CNAs are often the principal caregivers in nursing and residential care facilities. Because many patients stay in these facilities for months or years, CNAs often develop relationships with their patients.

Medical Assistant vs. Certified Nursing Assistant: Job Description

What Does a Medical Assistant Do?

Medical Assistants (MAs) can perform a variety of tasks critical to patient care and office administration. Thanks to MAs, doctors and nurses can dedicate more of their time to examining and treating their patients. Most medical assistants work in physician offices, hospitals, outpatient care centers, and offices of chiropractors.

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of a Medical Assistant include:

  • Recording patient history and personal information
  • Measuring patient’s vital signs, such as blood pressure and temperature
  • Helping physicians with patient examinations
  • Giving patients injections or medications as directed by physician or nurse
  • Explaining treatment procedures to patients
  • Answering telephones and scheduling patient appointments
  • Filling out insurance forms and coding patient medical information
  • Updating and filing patient medical records
  • Handling correspondence, billing, and bookkeeping

What Does a Certified Nursing Assistant Do?

Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs) provide basic care and help patients with the activities of daily living. This can include helping patients with eating, moving, and personal hygiene. Depending on where they work and their level of training, nursing assistants also may dispense medication. Most certified nursing assistants work in nursing care facilities, hospitals, continuing care retirement communities, assisted living facilities, and home healthcare services.

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of a Certified Nursing Assistant include:

  • Cleaning and bathing patients
  • Cleaning rooms and changing linens
  • Recording patients’ health concerns and reporting to nurses
  • Measuring patient’s vital signs, such as blood pressure and temperature
  • Serving meals and helping patients eat
  • Assisting with patient’s physical therapy and exercise

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Medical Assistant vs. Certified Nursing Assistant: Education

Educational Requirements for Medical Assistants

Medical assistants (MAs) typically hold a diploma or associate degree in medical assisting. MA programs are offered at community colleges, vocational schools, technical schools, and universities. Diploma programs take about 9 to 12 months to complete, while associate degree programs usually take about two years to complete. After graduation, you may want to add another month or two to study for, schedule, and take a certification exam.

If you’re looking to enter the workforce as soon as possible, earning an MA diploma is probably the best option for you. However, if you plan to pursue other roles in healthcare that require more education—such as nurse, doctor, or healthcare administrator—then earning an associate degree may provide greater value later in your career.

Although most medical assistants are not required to hold a state license or certification to practice in the field, most of today’s employers require or strongly prefer MAs with at least one certification. MAs who perform specific duties (such as phlebotomy or x-rays) or who work in specialized fields (such as podiatry or ophthalmology) may be required to have specific training and certification in their area of specialty. In 2012, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services also ruled that only credentialed MAs are allowed to enter the laboratory, radiology, and medical orders into their computerized system.

Click here to read our guide on the best Medical Assistant certifications for your healthcare career.

Educational Requirements for Certified Nursing Assistants

Certified Nursing Assistants are often required to complete a state-approved education program that includes both instruction on nursing principles and supervised clinical work. These programs are available in high schools, community colleges, vocational and technical schools, hospitals, and nursing homes. In addition, CNAs usually complete a brief period of on-the-job training to learn about their specific employer’s policies and procedures.

Many CNA certification programs can be completed in four to 12 weeks, depending on curriculum and class schedule. More robust programs may take six months to a year. Some may also require one week (40 hours) of clinical work at an appropriate long-term care facility.

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Medical Assistant vs. Certified Nursing Assistant: Salary

How Much Do Medical Assistants Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary* earned by Medical Assistants in 2020 was around $37,000 or about $18 per hour. MAs who earned salaries in the 10 percent made more than $50,000 per year.

Highest-Paying States for Medical Assistants

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), these are the states where you’re most likely to find the top-paying jobs for medical assistants:

State Hourly Mean Wage Annual Mean Wage
Alaska $22.41 $46,610
Washington $21.97 $45,700
District of Columbia $21.80 $45,340
Massachusetts $20.72 $43,090
Minnesota $20.72 $43,090

Highest-Paying Cities for Medical Assistants

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), these are the cities where you’re most likely to find the top-paying jobs for medical assistants:

City Hourly Mean Wage Annual Mean Wage
San Francisco, CA $25.94 $53,960
Santa Rosa, CA $25.25 $53,660
Seattle, WA $23.59 $49,070
San Jose, CA $23.57 $49,020
Sacramento-Roseville, CA $23.37 $48,600
Anchorage, AK $22.02 $45,790

How Much Do Certified Nursing Assistants Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary* earned by Certified Nursing Assistants in 2020  was about $31,000 or about $15 per hour. CNAs who earned salaries in the top 10 percent of made more than $42,000 per year.

Highest-Paying States for Nursing Assistants

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), these are the states where you’re most likely to find the top-paying jobs for nursing assistants:

State Hourly Mean Wage Annual Mean Wage
Alaska $20.43 $42,500
New York $19.53 $40,620
California $18.89 $39,280
Hawaii $18.58 $38,650
Massachusetts $17.86 $37,160

Highest-Paying Cities for Nursing Assistants

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), these are the cities where you’re most likely to find the top-paying jobs for nursing assistants:

City Hourly Mean Wage Annual Mean Wage
San Francisco, CA $23.28 $48,420
Vallejo, CA $20.29 $42,200
San Jose, CA $20.18 $41,980
Sacramento, CA $20.17 $41,950
New York, NY $19.48 $40,520

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Medical Assistant vs. Certified Nursing Assistant: Job Outlook

Medical Assistant Job Outlook

According to the BLS, overall employment of medical assistants is projected to grow 18 percent through 2030, which is much faster than the average for all occupations.

As the older portion of our population continues to grow, so will the demand for preventive medical services, which are often provided by physicians. Healthcare facilities will hire more medical assistants to perform routine administrative and clinical duties, allowing the physicians and nurses to see more patients.

Certified Nursing Assistant Job Outlook

According to the BLS, overall employment of CNAs is expected to grow 8 percent by 2030, which is the average for all occupations. As the baby-boomer population ages, nursing assistants will be needed to help care for the baby-boomer generation who have chronic or progressive diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes.

Head-to-Head Comparison: Nursing Assistant vs Medical Assistant

Comparison Nursing Assistant Medical Assistant
Job Description Provides basic care and helps patients with daily living Provides administrative services, basic patient care, and clinical support to doctors and nurses
Median Annual Wage $31,000 in 2020

 

$37,000 in 2020

 

Jobs 1.4 million 720,900
Employment Growth 8% thru 2030 18% thru 2030
Education (Recommended) 3–6 months training 9–12 months training

Why is a Certified Nursing Assistant a Great Alternative Career Path for Medical Assistants?

As an entry-level job, both nursing assistant and medical assistant can provide a great introduction to a healthcare career. Both can help you decide if healthcare is the right career for you. If you want to keep your options open for higher-level jobs in healthcare—such as doctor, nurse, physician assistant, physical therapist, phlebotomy technician, or medical office administrator—you might benefit from the more robust training that comes from a medical assistant program. You will gain more applicable knowledge and skills. Also, depending on the MA program you choose, you may be able to earn college credits that can apply to your next degree.

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Why Choose Eagle Gate College for Your Medical Assistant Training?

Founded in 1979, Eagle Gate College has provided thousands of graduates with the knowledge and skills they need to pursue a rewarding career in nursing and healthcare. With a curriculum continually updated to meet the needs of healthcare, state-of-the-art labs, and hands-on training from experienced healthcare professionals, we prepare graduates to make a positive impact starting with their first day on the job. Our robust Medical Assisting program combines virtual instruction, hands-on lab exercises, and supervised externship and can be completed in as little as 9 months. Eagle Gate College, in conjunction with Provo College, offers a premier healthcare education at five campus locations in Utah and Idaho.