What Is A CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant)?

If you’re interested in becoming a CNA, it’s important to learn as much as possible about the job before applying to certification program. The job of a CNA is an important one, and for the right person, it can lead to a rewarding career in the healthcare profession. CNAs are in demand, and the job makes a great step on the ladder that leads to other positions in healthcare.

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). Each state also has its own scope of practice for CNAs and its own code of ethics. We’ve pulled together some useful information to help you discover this role and to determine if it’s a good fit for you.

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 Courses Are Required To Become A CNA?
  7. 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 RNs or LPNs eyes and ears, and relays information between many patients and nurses.

CNAs are typically responsible for the general care of their patients. Duties will vary, depending on the specific needs of the patient. The most common responsibilities are taking and recording vital signs such as heart rate and blood pressure; assisting them to and from their bed or chair as needed; and helping them with feeding and personal hygiene. CNAs may also assist doctors or nurses during medical procedures.

Other job duties may include:

  • Adjust positions of patients on beds or tables
  • Assess physical conditions of patients to aid in diagnosis or treatment
  • Operate medical equipment
  • Apply bandages, dressings, or splints
  • Move patients to or from treatment areas
  • Prepare medical instruments or equipment for use
  • Transport biological or other medical materials
  • Explain technical medical information to patients

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.

Back to Top

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 CNAs, so it’s important to learn your particular state’s requirements for nursing licensure.

The job of an orderly is very similar to the job of a CNA. Orderlies primarily work in hospitals, transferring patients from the bed to the restroom or from their room to a medical testing site. CNAs primarily work in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, taking patients’ vital signs and communicating with doctors or nurses who make rounds less frequently.

Back to Top

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. This is a great perk for working students, busy parents, or anyone who needs more scheduling flexibility when it comes to clinical hours.

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 as of 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, as of May 2017:

  • 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. (Source: BLS.gov: Occupational Employment And Wages: Nursing Assistants, data as of May 2017.)

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

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics also identified the states with the highest concentration of jobs and location quotients in this occupation. This information may be useful when searching for jobs.
Currently, the states with the highest concentration of CNA jobs include:

  • Rhode Island
  • North Dakota
  • Kansas
  • Maine
  • Arkansas

CNA jobs are on the rise and the trend isn’t expected to slow down anytime soon. So if you don’t live in a state with a high concentration of CNA jobs, don’t be discouraged. CNAs are always in demand and the need for quality health care providers will only increase in the years to come.

Back to Top

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. 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.

If you’re considering becoming a registered nurse, working as a CNA first is a great entry into the medical field. The experiences you’ll gain will help you decide if nursing is the right fit for you. You’ll also enter a nursing education program with a solid background in patient care. You might also want to become a LPN. Either role will benefit from your experience as a CNA.

If you have a passion for helping others and want to work alongside doctors and nurses, becoming a CNA will satisfy your career goals. It’s a position with enormous opportunity to grow both professionally and personally.

Back to Top

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.

In order to keep your CNA licensure active, you’ll likely be required to complete 48 hours of continuing education every two years. Your state board provides this information on their website. When your license is up for renewal, your employer about continuing education subsidization.

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. These skills vary depending on where you work and who work for, but on average, CNAs should possess the following qualities:

  • 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.
  • Time management and organizational skills. CNAS should be able to daily tasks, file paperwork and reports in a timely manner, and work independently.
  • 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.
  • Observation skills. CNAs must be detail-oriented and have a strong sense of awareness while caring for patients and communicating with doctors and nurses.

Back to Top

What Courses Are Required To Become A CNA?

To work as a CNA, you’ll need to complete an accredited program that prepares you for state licensure. These programs train students to care for patients in a variety of ways. You’ll learn about the different systems in the body and how to effectively communicate with patients and medical staff.

Other topics often covered include:

  • CPR/First Aid/AED
  • Infection control
  • How to take vital signs
  • Range of motion exercises
  • Communication and teamwork
  • Patient care
  • Workplace safety

Coursework is designed to prepare students to successfully pass the nurse aide certification exam. If you decide classes online, make sure the program is approved in your state. You’ll also need to make sure the program requires you to complete clinical hours. Clinical hours are designed to help build your skills and confidence. Each state has specific requirements about the amount of training a CNA needs. Traditional CNA programs are offered at vocational and technical colleges. These programs vary in length but usually take an average of 6 to 8 weeks to complete.

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.

Back to Top

What CNA Classes Are Available Online?

CNA classes are available online and offer the same course content that campus-based program provide. Both an accredited online college and a traditional campus college will provide you with the education you need to excel in your field. Neither is better than the other; the key is to pick what works best for you.

Schedules that are entirely self-paced are best for independent students who have the discipline to set their own deadlines. Self-paced means you initiate the speed at which you complete your classes. Depending on your work schedule and other responsibilities, you may complete courses at a faster rate than others. You basically create your own schedule by choosing classes that fit your schedule and ability. This allows for an enormous degree of flexibility. However, it’s important to weigh all options prior to making a decision. Education is expensive, no matter what form of learning you choose so you’ll want to weigh your options carefully.

You’ll notice that some training programs are referred to as a medical assisting program. These programs are offered as a diploma, certificate, or an associate’s degree. These programs vary in length and graduation requirements. When researching programs, make sure that the program is in fact designed to prepare you to work as a CNA, not a medical biller or coder. Medical billing and coding is an entirely different field, but the name of the training program sounds similar.

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

PROGRAMS:

Request Information

South University

Accreditation: SACS

PROGRAMS:

Request Information

Miller-Motte College

Accreditation: ACICS

PROGRAMS:

Request Information

Click here to see more Nursing programs...

Find Your CNA Program

Research your CNA program options with our database of over 300 schools. Search by subject, tuition, campus or online to find a CNA program that fits your needs.


Find Your CNA Program