What is a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)?

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). Also known as a Nursing Assistant (NA) a Patient Care Assistant (PCA) or a State Tested Nurse Aid (STNA), the individual who carries this title needs strong work ethic and ability, but issues of liability and legality prevent CNAs from performing certain procedures.

Role of the CNA

Your regular responsibilities as a nursing assistant will vary based on where you work or live. Nursing assistants can 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, the nursing assistant serves as the RN’s or LPN’s eyes and ears, and relays information between many patients and one or two RNs.

The nursing assistant fulfills basic quality-of-life needs for patients of any age, ethnicity or gender 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.

Becoming a CNA

Training to become a medical assistant or CNA is offered by the Red Cross, 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. All CNAs must take an examination before they become qualified nursing assistants.

CNAs and the Nursing Industry

Because so many nurse’s 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.

Careers Similar to Certified Nursing Assistant

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 tend to be paid better than medical assistants, though many of their duties are similar.

Daily Responsibilities of CNAs

O-Net Online, a database linked to by The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), has detailed descriptions of the daily ups and downs of many jobs. Their description of a nursing or psychiatric aide’s daily duties includes:

  • “Administer medications or treatments, such as catheterizations, suppositories, irrigations, enemas, massages, or douches, as directed by a physician or nurse.”
  • “Clean and sanitize patient rooms, bathrooms, examination rooms, or other patient areas.”
  • “Document or otherwise report observations of patient behavior, complaints, or physical symptoms to nurses.”
  • “Apply clean dressings, slings, stockings, or support bandages, under direction of nurse or physician.”

Clearly, the duties of a CNA are not glamorous, but the position is highly suited for people who arei interested in helping to cure illness, mitigate misery, and generally add to the wellbeing of other people at the time they need it most.

Becoming a CNA: Education, Licensure, and Advancement

To become a CNA you have to complete a training course which can take anywhere from four to six weeks, and then get licensed in the state where you wish to work. CNA training programs can cost several thousand dollars, but it is possible to get financial aid to help shoulder this burden. The federal government, the military, and even hospitals themselves offer financial assistance for students of all stripes.

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.

Moving into a new career after being a CNA will probably take at least two years of education, but the increased pay and benefits you’ll receive upon becoming a registered nurse or even an advanced practice registered nurse will easily make up for the time and money spent on education.

CNA Pay and Benefits

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 BLS, the median hourly wage for CNAs was $11.46 in May 2008. Median wages for similar or related careers were as follows:

  • Medical Assistants: $28,300 (annual)
  • Registered Nurses: $62,450 (annual)
  • Home Health Aides: $9.22 (hourly)

Location can be a major influencing factor in how much you earn in any of the above jobs, and how many jobs are available in the first place. The chart below shows data from The BLS about how many medical assistant jobs are available in the five states with highest employment in that field.

Choosing Your CNA Career

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. The schools linked below can prepare you for any of the above discussed jobs, and those jobs can give you the experience you need to get even more fulfilling jobs down the road. 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.

Schools with nursing assisting programs

Kaplan University Kaplan University — Kaplan University is an accredited university, offering 170 degrees and programs. Kaplan University's Associate of Applied Science in Medical Assisting and Nursing prepare students to pursue entry-level positions in the ambulatory medical field and for entry-level positions in health information management. Financial aid is available for those who apply and qualify.
Keiser University Keiser University — Keiser University is an accredited university offering over 80 programs. Keiser University's Associate of Science degree in Medical Assisting prepares you for a fulfilling career in health care, shaping you to be an essential part of a physician's office, clinic or other medical environments. The Associate of Science degree in Health Services program prepares students in both business and health service administration. Click Here
Sanford Brown College Sanford Brown College — Sanford Brown College offers more than 20 unique associate and bachelor's degree programs. The Associate of Applied Science in Nursing program prepares students for entry-level nursing in a private practice, hospital, clinic or government agency. Financial aid is available for those who apply and qualify. Click Here
National American University National American University — National American University is an accredited institution and offers more than 20 accelerated certificate and Associate of Science degree programs in the business, medical and technical fields. The AS in Nursing program at NAU offers comprehensive back office training to provide support to physicians and direct patient care in a variety of medical settings. Click Here

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