Medical Assistant Vs. CNA: What’s The Difference?

A certified nursing assistant (CNA) is not the same as a medical assistant. The occupations both involve working with patients and collaborating with nurses and physicians in medical settings, but a CNA has much more specific duties. CNAs aid nurses by doing patient prep work, such as taking temperature or blood pressure, feeding and bathing patients, and filling the role of a general caregiver for patients who may not need constant medical attention, but do need assistance with personal maintenance in between medical procedures.

CNAs and medical assistants may work in similar settings and perform similar tasks even if their level of education and their requirements for licensure or certification are different. A crucial difference between the two is that CNAs tend to provide bedside care to senescent patients, where medical assistants assist more with procedural or administrative preparation and housekeeping.

Role of the Nursing Assistant

Nursing assistants interact with the public as well as acting as a liaison between patients and registered nurses or licensed practicing nurses. Duties of a CNA may include:

  • Gathering Information: CNAs test vital signs, order blood tests, take temperatures, and ask questions of patients to form a dossier of information so that the nurse or physician can get right to the point when they see a patient.
  • Keeping Records: Maintaining records of patient information is largely the purview of billing and coding specialists, but as the primary gatherers of certain types of private patient info, CNAs are an integral cog in the medical data tracking machine.
  • Bedside Patient Care: CNAs may need to care for disabled or anesthetized patients while they recover, sometimes on a continual basis. Patience and empathy are crucial skills to stay happy as a CNA.
  • Availability: Many CNAs work in residential facilities, and must simply be available if a client needs them. This means working nights, weekends, and holidays sometimes, though it is unlikely an individual CNA would work only these undesirable shifts.

Similarities and Differences Between CNAs and Medical Assistants

Both medical assistants and certified nursing assistants must understand and comply with The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) laws, all of which are crucial parts of the increasingly complex health care system. These laws protect patients from malpractice and other possible failures of the medical system, while insulating healthcare practitioners and institutions from too much liability.

Most CNAs report to an RN or licensed practicing nurse (LPN), whereas medical assistants report to an office manager or physician. Since becoming a CNA requires more training than becoming a medical assistant, CNAs will also have an easier time progressing into a career as an RN, if they so choose. The training involved in becoming a CNA can be applied to nursing school for partial credit at many colleges or universities, whereas medical assistants would likely need to start a nursing program from the very beginning.

This last difference often makes the choice easy for anyone who wants to have the freedom to become more involved with patient care. Certified nursing assistants also have more freedom when it comes to choice of employment and with climbing a career ladder.

Credentials for CNAs and Medical Assistants

Medical professions often require a certificate or credential that must be renewed every few years to insure that the workforce is keeping up with innovations in the rapidly changing industry. For CNAs, this means completing 75 hours of state-approved training, and passing a competency test. This training and testing makes the difference between being a Certified Nursing Assistant, who can work in nursing care facilities, and a nursing aide, which is essentially the same as a medical assistant.

Certification for medical assistants is not legally mandated, but can still offer a leg-up in the job market, as medical assistants with some evidence of their competency will more likely be hired into well paid positions. The American Association of Medical Assistants and the Association of Medical Technologists both offer credentials for medical assistants.

Facilities Where Both CNAs and Medical Assistants Work

Hospitals, private clinics, and doctors’ offices can all employ CNAs, medical assistants, or both, but there are a variety of contexts within those facilities, and both types of worker are not necessarily suited for all the available tasks. Some of the contexts where both CNAs and medical assistants can work are listed below:

  • Hospital Departments: CNAs don’t have to specialize in school, but if a student is using CNA training as a stepping stone toward a nursing career, trying to work in a specific department can be a good trial period for working with a particular kind of nurse and their patients. A CNA who wants to become a midwife might work in an obstetrics department for a while to get some experience and test the field.
  • Family Practices: Medical assistants and nursing assistants can be crucial additions to small family practices, where one or two doctors are seeing many patients, and need to be free of administrative or routine tasks like taking weight, height, and vital signs.
  • Public and Private Outpatient Clinics: Some clinics specialize in a particular type of care, such as reproductive health or ambulatory surgery. These clinics can offer opportunities for both CNAs and medical assistants to gain assisting experience in a specific field, which can be useful for going back to school and trying to upgrade to a more prestigious career.

How To Decide Which One is for You

Anyone considering a career in medical assisting should know the ups and downs of becoming a nursing aide, CNA, or medical assistant. The education requirements and speculative timetable for each are different, and the options for career growth and pay increases can also vary. The following list breaks down the requirements and options for each career path:

  • Nursing or Psychiatric Aide: Vocational training for these positions is offered at some high schools and community colleges, but no actual degree beyond a high school diploma or GED is required to work as a nursing or psychiatric aide. Courses lasting around six weeks can prepare students to get a job in the field, and on-the-job training will help them gain further skills and experience.
  • Medical Assistant: The term medical assistant covers a broad range of potential support jobs in medical facilities. No training or degree is required to have the title of medical assistant, but facilities have their own requirements for level of education and credentials for the medical assistants they hire.
  • Certified Nursing Assistant: No college is required to become a CNA, but 75 hours of training are required to gain certification, and the certification may need to be renewed periodically. This state-approved training qualifies CNAs for more responsibility and better pay than nursing aides or medical assistants.
  • Physician’s Assistant: This is a totally different position than those listed above. Physician’s assistants earn more and have much more responsibility and authority to dole out treatment. They still always work under the supervision of doctors, but their pay is commensurate with the level of education and experience required for the position.

Featured CNA Programs

Purdue University

Accreditation: HLC, NCA


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Additional Resources for Potential Medical Support Workers

There are many ways to get an idea of what life is like for support workers in the medical industry such as CNAs and medical assistants, but some of the best offerings come straight from the U.S. Government. The following are government websites or associated sites with reliable info about CNA and medical assistant activities, training, and careers.

The links above should be useful in the decision-making process, but ultimately, the decision to become a CNA or medical assistant is far more influenced by a student’s personal circumstances than by any governmental data, and the ability to choose a career path and follow through with it, at least long enough to determine whether it is a viable, long-term choice, is the most important skill at the beginning of either of these potentially rewarding careers. For students who have made a decision and are ready to go to school, the colleges below offer accredited degree programs in health and administration careers that can help students become CNAs and quickly move on to positions with more responsibility, better pay, and greater intangible rewards.

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