What Is A CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant)?

A certified nursing assistant, or CNA, helps patients or clients with healthcare needs under the supervision of a Registered Nurse (RN) or a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN).

A CNA may also be known as a Nursing Assistant (NA), a Patient Care Assistant (PCA), or a State Tested Nurse Assistant (STNA). To learn more about becoming and working as a CNA, click on each of the links below to jump to more information about that topic:

  1. What Is A CNA?
  2. CNAs vs. Orderlies vs. Medical Assistants vs. Psychiatric Aides
  3. How Much Does A CNA Earn?
  4. Why Become A CNA?
  5. What Are The Education And Licensure Requirements For CNAs?
  6. What CNA Classes Are Available Online?

What Is A CNA?

Job responsibilities vary based on where you work and live. CNAs often work in a wide variety of settings; nursing homes, hospitals, adult day care centers, personal homes and assisted living facilities all require nursing assistants to act as a helpful liaison between the RN or LPN and the patient. In many cases, CNAs serve as the RN’s or LPN’s eyes and ears, and relays information between many patients and nurses.

Nursing assistants fulfill basic quality-of-life needs for patients of any age in residential nursing care facilities or outpatient clinics. Since nursing assistants have daily contact with patients, they are gatherers of vital information about the patients’ conditions, which they must then transmit to their supervisors. A CNA’s workload can become intense and fast-paced, but the human contact and ability to help those in medical need is a strong motivating factor. A desire to help people and compassion for patients can help a nurse’s assistant get through difficult days.
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CNAs vs. Orderlies vs. Medical Assistants vs. Psychiatric Aides

CNAs, orderlies, psychiatric aides, and medical assistants are often lumped into one large category, and though the positions share some duties, there are key differences. The following are brief descriptions of each, to help you understand those differences and decide which fits you best.

  • Orderlies: An orderly is a hospital attendant charged with non-medical patient care and general maintenance of systematic operations. Orderlies do not need a degree or certificate, and their interactions with patients are limited to non-treatment activities.
  • Psychiatric Aides: This position is similar to a CNA, except for the work environment. Mental health wards and psychiatric hospitals have different routines than regular hospitals, and psychiatric aides have to be familiar with the unique privacy concerns and treatment needs of mental health patients.
  • Medical Assistants: A medical assistant does not need a degree or certificate, and their main responsibilities are to help doctors and nurses with routine tasks. Medical assistants have less authority to participate in patient treatment than CNAs.
  • Certified Nurse Assistants/Aides: CNAs can take vital signs and gather other patient data as well as administering basic care and tending to the hygiene needs of patients. Because of their state approved training and certification, CNAs have more authority and often earn more than medical assistants, though many of their duties are similar.

Nursing assistant and medical assistant are often used interchangeably, as these roles share many of the same responsibilities, especially at hospitals and medical centers. What differentiates the two often comes down to location. Each state has its own criteria for becoming certified or licensed as a nursing aide. Each state also has its own regulatory board for licensing nurses, so it’s important to learn your particular state’s requirements for nursing licensure.
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How Much Does A CNA Earn?

CNAs typically earn an hourly wage rather than an annual salary, so your pay will fluctuate depending on whether you take a few hours here and there, steadily work full time, or constantly pull 60 hour weeks. According to The US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage for nursing assistants was $27,520 as of May 2017.

Like most jobs, the more experience you have and the longer you work in the field, the more money you can make. You can also pursue additional certifications, such as Patient Care Technician (PCT) or become a Registered Nurse (RN). In some states, nursing assistants can earn additional credentials, such as becoming a Certified Medication Assistant (CMA). As a CMA, they can give medications.Your place of employment might help pay for an advanced degree or additional certification and allow you to fulfill clinical hours while at work.

Location and job availability are two factors in determining pay. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics highlights those states with the highest employment level for nursing assistants (source: BLS.gov: Occupational Employment And Wages: Nursing Assistants, data for May 2017)

Another determining factor of pay is what industry you choose to work in. CNAs primarily work in nursing homes but also find employment at other medical centers, including hospitals, urgent care clinics, and and retail clinics. Urgent care clinics are growing in popularity and need qualified staff to support medical teams.

According to The US Bureau of Labor Statistics, industries with the highest levels of employment in this occupation include the following:

  • Nursing Care Facilities (Skilled Nursing Facilities)
  • General Medical and Surgical Hospitals
  • Continuing Care Retirement Communities and Assisted Living Facilities for the Elderly
  • Home Health Care Services
  • Employment Services

Certain industries also pay CNAs more, and The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has identified the five highest paying industries for this occupation:

  • Federal Executive Branch (OES Designation)
  • Facilities Support Services
  • Scientific Research and Development Services
  • Educational Support Services
  • Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools

You’ll have to determine what industry suits you best. If you’re unsure, you might consider shadowing a CNA at a few different job sites to observe what the job entails.
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Why Become A CNA?

Because so many nurse aides want to move up into more involved medical careers, there is a high rate of turnover for CNA positions. This means it is fairly easy to find a job as a CNA, but many who start out in this career do not stay in it for life. The demand for CNAs is high, especially among those institutions that provide continuing care and assisted living for the elderly. Many health care facilities recognize the important role that a qualified and compassionate CNA can play in their quality of care offered. Additionally, a CNA can find support through organizations such as the National Association of Health Care Assistants.

Part of the reason there is such high turnover in CNA jobs is that CNAs can relatively easily get the necessary education to become RNs. Taking classes online while continuing to work is easier than ever, and there are many associate’s degree and bachelor’s degree programs that CNAs can use to get qualified for better paying work in the medical industry.
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What Are The Education And Licensure Requirements For CNAs?

Training to become a medical assistant or CNA is offered by community colleges, online schools and through medical facilities. Some clinics will hire untrained and inexperienced workers and provide on-the-job training, but these opportunities may be hard to come by. Many schools offer training within medical facilities as part of their course programs as well.

After completing training, you’ll need to take a competency exam that tests both your book knowledge and practical skills that were taught during training. Practice tests and study guides are freely available online, so studying for the test should be a breeze. All CNAs must take an examination before they become qualified nursing assistants.

CNAs play an important role in the health care team, and if becoming a CNA is your choice for a career, you’ll have the opportunity to make a difference and help others. CNAs have tremendous job stability and often have scheduling flexibility and other job perks such as the opportunity to specialize and the ability to work in various sectors.

In addition to certification, CNAs must also possess a few important qualities to be successful:

  • Communication skills. Effective communication skills are a must in order to address patients’ and their families’ concerns. CNAs must be able to communicate effectively doctors, nurses, and other staff members.
  • Patience. CNAs must have patience in order to help patients with many basic needs such as bathing, dressing, mobility, positioning, eating, and grooming, among other things.
  • Physical stamina. Nursing assistants and orderlies spend much of their time on their feet. They should be comfortable performing physical tasks, such as lifting or moving patients.

Now that you know a little more about what being a CNA is like, and have some information about other comparable jobs, it is time to make a choice. Exploring the different online programs that are available to move you toward these medical support careers is the first step toward actually getting a degree or certificate.
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What CNA Classes Are Available Online?

CNA classes are available online and offer the same course content that campus-based program provide. Below are accredited online CNA training programs that are recognized as approved training options by licensing agencies:

Featured CNA Programs

Purdue University

Accreditation: HLC, NCA


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Kaplan University

Accreditation: HLC, NCA


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South University

Accreditation: SACS


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Miller-Motte College

Accreditation: ACICS


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Seacoast Career School

Accreditation: ACCET


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