Medical Assistant versus Certified Nursing Assistant

Updated By Staff Writer on June 25, 2020

Gaining employment in the medical field is a great career move, especially since this sector is expanding quickly, with jobs like medical assistant among the fastest growing occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.1

What area of the medical field are you most interested in? There are dozens of options to choose from, but if you’re reading this post, you’ve potentially narrowed down your choices to a medical assistant (MA) or a certified nurse assistant (CNA).

Before making the decision to go with either position, it’s important to understand what working each job will entail, where you’ll be able to work, and what credentials each job needs.

What is a Medical Assistant?

Working as a medical assistant will likely involve both administrative and clinical work. A degree as an MA gives you a wide range of skills, making you versatile and useful in a lot of different situations.

However, you are primarily a medical assistant, so, as the name implies, you will support and work with physicians and other healthcare professionals.

What is a Certified Nursing Assistant?

A certified nursing assistant, more commonly known as a CNA, helps clients or patients with certain health needs or requirements. They work under the supervision of a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) or a Registered Nurse (RN).

A CNA will work to gather information about the patient in the form of blood tests, asking health history questions, etc. They also keep records of a patient and oftentimes provide general healthcare assistance to patients who otherwise can’t take care of themselves, according to The National Healthcareer Association.2

What are the similarities and differences between Medical Assistants and CNAs?

We’ll break down the differences and similarities between medical assistants and certified nursing assistants into the training and duties required for each job.

What kind of training do Medical Assistants and CNAs get?

To become an MA, you must successfully finish an accredited medical assisting program to earn your medical assisting associate degree, which will take one to two years. These types of programs are available through online and traditional classroom settings across the country. As with most medical degrees, students studying to be an MA will be required to do a certain number of clinical hours.

A CNA license takes less time to gain; it can happen in a matter of weeks (six weeks up to three months). As with an MA degree, the CNA certification can happen online or in person at a technical school. To get this certification, you’ll also have to undergo a certain number of clinical hours.

What are the duties of Medical Assistants and CNAs?

Medical assistants will qualify to perform preliminary physical exams and measure vital signs. They can draw blood as well. According to The National Healthcareer Association, some of their other duties will likely involve:2

  • Talking with patients about health
  • Assisting in minor surgeries
  • Answering questions or phone calls
  • Providing medical injections
  • Arranging medical referrals
  • Contacting pharmacies
  • Performing testing procedures like EKG and Spirometry
  • Performing basic billing

Certified nursing assistants will work much more closely with patients, providing healthcare one-on-one. Their responsibilities might include:

  • Being on call and ready to provide assistance when needed
  • Cleaning the patient’s environment
  • Helping patients eat, bathe, clothe, etc.
  • Collecting samples for labs
  • What types of credentials are required?

Check out these 10 FAQs for Medical Assistants for even more info about medical assisting.

Each state has different rules pertaining to certification and credentials for both medical assistants and certified nursing assistants, so be sure to look at the specific rules for the state you live in. In general, working as a medical professional will often require a renewal of certification every few years or so.

In terms of receiving initial certification, MA certification differs by state and by employer. However, education training and a national certification can help you succeed in gaining employment. For CNAs, certification often looks like 75 hours worth of specific, state-approved training and passing a test.

Where do Medical Assistants and CNAs work?

CNAs and MAs can often get hired on at the same sort of places. All sorts of medical institutions require the skills of both medical assistants and certified nursing assistants. The main difference will be the duties performed by each position. As we mentioned above, CNAs and MAs have different responsibilities.

As either a CNA or an MA, you might expect to be hired by the following types of places:

  • Nursing Care Facilities: You’ll more often find CNAs working at Nursing Care Facilities, working to help the elderly or retired. Medical assistants can also find work at such a facility, though.
  • Family Practices: Both medical assistants and certified nursing assistants are needed at family practices. Smaller practices such as these can always use extra hands to take care of the routine parts of checkups such as taking weight and height before seeing the doctor.
  • Hospital Departments: CNAs can work under specific types of nurses in specialized fields at hospitals where nurses cover anything from pediatrics to birthing.
  • Private Outpatient Clinics/Public Outpatient Clinics: Clinics such as these often have specialized care for specific parts of the body. Both CNAs and MAs can work at these clinics and gain more in-depth knowledge and develop specific skills.
  • Urgent Care Clinics: Similar to family practices, working at an urgent care clinic as a CNA or MA will enable busy doctors and nurses to better assist their patients.
  • Rehabilitation Programs: CNAs can also work at rehab centers, helping assist patients with their day-to-day needs or caring for them during overnight stays. MA’s can work in rehabilitation programs involving ambulatory care.

How do I know which job is the right one for me?

These two medical careers might seem similar in a lot of ways, but it’s important to understand their key differences when deciding which one is right for you.

If you feel that medical assisting is the right fit for you, check out our medical assisting associate degree program. This degree will provide you with general knowledge and background of the medical field, allowing you to graduate with basic skills necessary to work as a medical professional. It will also prepare you for potential certifications or licensing for other areas of medical expertise down the road.