Medical Assistant vs CNA: What are the Differences

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What is the Difference Between a Medical Assistant and a Nursing Assistant?

The two most promising stepping stones into the world of medicine, super swift and secure, Medical Assistant or Nursing Assistant is what many young aspirants today envision of becoming. Statistics display an insane amount of growth in jobs across both domains with stable, well-payed, and demanded career paths. However, these two career streams remain yet a little puzzling for those at the outset. Which one to chose and how to pursue further often is not known and is a point of confusion.

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To break through the ambiguity surrounding the medical and nursing assisting professions, we bring you key features of each and their main point of distinctions. It will help you decide whether these streams are right for you and which of the two would be your perfect fit.

What is a Medical Assistant?

Medical assistants or MAs assist doctors, physicians, and surgeons across a range of working environments such as ambulatory services, hospitals, private clinics, and retirement centers. Their scope of work is so varied that their expertise ranges across both clinical and administrative tasks. While one day a medical assistant may be drawing blood in a clinical setting, on the second day, he or she may be filing medical insurances and coding data.

What is a Nursing Assistant (CNA)?

Nursing assistants report to a licensed registered nurse (RN) or a licensed practical nurse (LPN). CNAs are entrusted with daily patient care duties. They act as the link between nurses and patients. Many of the diseased or ill cannot do day to day chores on their own, CNAs help those dependent patients conduct their daily routine tasks such as nutrition, hygiene, bathing, and moving around. They’re also called nursing aides and are mostly concerned with patient-centric assistance in hospitals, nursing facilities, patient’s home premises, or living assistance center.

Medical Assistant vs CNA: Education Difference

One of the topmost benefits of pursuing these two professions is that a traditional 4-year university course (and an insane amount of finances for the same) are not needed for either stream. More specific educational requirements are enlisted below for each.

MA Education Requirements

Formal educational qualifications to become a medical assistant differ with the state you’re practicing in. Traditionally, MAs do not mandatorily need to attain post-secondary training. However, an aspiring medical assistant should note that, in reality, this is rarely true. Most employers do prefer candidates possessing at least some specialized medical assistant training.

There are accredited MA programs throughout the United States for the same. From diplomas to certificate programs and associate degrees, accredited courses can help you boost your employability and also permit you to sit for national MA certifications on program completion. These courses extend for around a year on average (associate degrees cover general education modules and stretch for about 2 years). Curriculums here include anatomy, pharmacology, and medical terminology and ethics, amongst other essential medicine-related knowledge areas. Thus, hiring establishments often seek applicants to showcase such skills they have learned in past educational training.

CNA Education Requirements

Educational requirements for nursing assistants are more specific and certificate-oriented, as the name itself postulates ‘certified’ nursing assistant. The first step is to, of course, completing a high school or GED. Aspiring CNAs then have to enroll in a state-approved program for picking up patient care skills to start with. Such programs are taught across community colleges, hospitals, or in an online format.

Then, they should acquire in-person relevant clinical nursing work experience to gain practical knowledge in the field. Certain states might also ask for add-on qualifications. Depending on the state you’re located in, you might have to complete continuing education. Once ready with all educational prerequisites, all CNAs will need to sit for a state-mandated competency exam to earn the certification of a CNA.

Medical Assistant vs CNA: Certification Requirements

Like in any other profession, specific credentials are associated with both MAs and CNAs. Certifying bodies render these after successfully passing licensing exams. Read on for more specific licensure information:

MA Certification and Licensure

Most states do not require medical assistants to be certified by law. However, as discussed above, attaining a national certification renders a much valuable credential to your resume. Most employers prefer to hire certified medical assistants and are also willing to pay more for them. Certifications that medical assistants can achieve:

  • National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) credential by the National Center for Competency Testing (NCTT)
  • Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) by the National Healthcare Association
  • Certified Podiatric Medical Assistant (PMAC) credential by the American Society of Podiatric Medical Assistants (90-day mandatory membership)
  • Certified Ophthalmic Assistant (COA) through the Career Advancement Tool (JCAT), and after passing the COA exam,
  • Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) credential by the American Medical Technologists (AMT). For this, 720 clock hours of medical assisting is mandatory, along with a clinical externship (minimum of 160 hours).
  • Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) credential by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). To be eligible to sit for the CMA exam, students must have completed a program accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). Search for Prometric centers in your state to register. CMA is valid for 5 years and must be renewed thereon.

Out of these, the RMA and CMA certifications are most valued and coveted. These are recognized all over the United States. So even if you want to relocate to another state, thanks to these national certifications, you can expect to find jobs wherever you go.

CNA Certification and Licensure

To practice as a nursing assistant, all CNAs must pass the CNA licensing exam. This assessment requires (usually) 75 hours of classroom training and patient care work experience that is supervised in a real-life clinical setting. Different states may postulate distinct requirements; they may specify the number of training hours required and clinical experience needed off students. After that, then have to submit the CNA certification application successfully along with the fees. They must complete all background and fingerprint checks.

The CNA exam consists of a written and oral component administered in a group-based format. There is also a clinical skills exam administered one-on-one by a nurse or another medical practitioner. Students must showcase their physical skills such as hand-washing, pulse recording, and other essential nursing-related tasks. On passing the certification exam, you will be listed on the state’s CNA registry. CNA certification usually stands valid for 2 years, after which you can renew the credential.

Medical Assistant vs CNA: Job Duties

MA Duties and Responsibilities

Medical assistant duties include shifting between clinical services and administrative functions that are important for ensuring the smooth running of the medical establishment and office. Thus, MA duties and responsibilities include but are not limited to:

  • Preparing blood samples for lab testing
  • Preparing examination rooms
  • Conducting EKGs
  • Recording vital signs of patients
  • Scheduling appointments
  • Electronic Health Recording (EHR)
  • Stocking of supplies and inventory management
  • Reception tasks and attending telephonic inquiries
  • Billing and insurance handling
  • Showing patient’s their way around the establishment
  • Recording the patient’s family history and keeping the records updated

CNA Duties and Responsibilities

A certified nursing assistant is working in direct touch with the patients most of the time. The key focus area for CNAs is the primary patient care duties across hospitals or nursing homes. Thus, less of the more technical medical functions that are traditionally carried out by nurses, but more focus on helping out the patient in need. Their specific tasks and responsibilities can include:

  • Helping patients get dressed
  • Patient bathing or showering activities as the ill and diseased might find it difficult to carry out essential daily hygiene
  • Helping patients navigate, for instance, shifting them from the wheelchair to the bed and vice versa
  • Addressing the concerns that the patients they’re looking after have to the nurses, they’re appointed under
  • Check for the patients’ vital signs such as temperature, etc. and record the same
  • CNAs, on the whole, carry out ADLS, i.e., activities of daily living assistance
  • CNAs also carry out home health assistance when required

Medical Assistant vs CNA: Skills Requirements

Since the scope of duties of an MA and CNA differ, the respective competencies and skillsets needed for each are also distinct.

Medical Assistant Skills

Since MAs have to carry out more technical work across both admin and clinical domains, their skill sets include specific expertise on specialized tasks. The kind of skills that MAs need to account for before seeking employment are:

  • EHR skills (medical assistants today are required to possess electronic health recording management knowledge and experience)
  • The technical expertise of rendering vaccinations and injection to patients
  • Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) skills
  • Tech Skills of operating complex appointment scheduling software
  • Skills in conducting electrocardiograms
  • Basic pharmacology skills as they might be refilling doses as prescribed by the licensed physicians they report to
  • Digital literacy skills are sought out as the medical landscape is increasingly becoming tech-oriented
  • Adept computer literacy is a must
  • Basic accounting, bookkeeping, and insurance filling capabilities are also mandatory in most cases
  • A fast typing speed (often the words per minute are mentioned by the employer or certification body)
  • Accurate data entry skills and good telephonic courtesy

CNA Skills

Certified nursing assistants focus on patient-centric tasks and less on technical areas. The skills that CNAs usually are required to possess by most prospective employing establishments include:

  • Vital sign assessment: Skills to accurately measure the vital signs of patients. CNAs should know, for instance, how to operate a blood pressure machine and assess the right figure. They are required to understand how to record the patient’s temperature, pulse, and respiratory counts.
  • Positioning skills: CNAs should know how to position the patient most aptly for the task at hand. They need to be aware of the different position options and their suitability (supine, prone, lateral, Sim’s, and Fowler’s).
  • Feeding skills: CNAs work directly with patients to help them cover their daily activities. Many of the patients are not able to nutrition themselves. In such cases, CNAs need to have the right qualities of positioning themselves appropriately so that they can feed the patient and also record food and fluid intakes.
  • Hand, foot and nail care: Dependent patients are at the disposal of CNAs to display hygiene maintenance skills
  • Gait belt skills: CNAs are required to help patients stand up and move around using gait belts and other techniques
  • Toileting assistance: These professionals should possess skills to bedpan patients when needed and keep them clean under all circumstances
  • Interpersonal skills under exceptional cases too, such as communication skills across patients that face difficulties in hearing or speaking, explaining families and the patient about the treatment and prevention procedures, and making them feel at ease, and helping patients suffering from memory loss and confusion.

These skills above are a snapshot of what is required both from MAs and CNAs.

In general, as you must have learned, medical assistants require more technical, analytical, and detail-oriented skills for constructing charts and carrying out tests with utmost accuracy to equip nothing but the right diagnosis. Excellent motor skills are also sought out from MAs as they work with delicate medical equipment that requires good hand-eye coordination. They need to possess more tech-savvy software and computer-related competencies too. They should also have an understanding of finance, medical insurances, and data coding.

On the other hand, the critical competencies for CNAs are communication skills, patient-centric empathy, and a deep understanding of the day to day issues being faced by those dependent on them. CNAs, in addition to particular hygiene and infection control technical skills, have to demonstrate considerable physical stamina to hold up the patients and adequately provide physical care when required. The number one skill, of course, is to be able to communicate effectively with the whole medical team, including patients and supervising nurses they report to.

Medical Assistant vs CNA: Work Environment

MA Workplace Environment

With the healthcare industry knowing no limitation of shifts, the work environment, in general, can be quite demand-based with night shifts and duty across odd hours. However, one key advantage that MAs possess here is that they not only work in clinical settings but also across administrative departments. There are varied work settings for medical assistants, which allow them to chalk out their preferred job environment at most times.

For instance, ones motivated with a fast-paced and dynamic environment opt to work in big hospitals. Those preferring a personal connection with patients tend to assist in private clinic settings, and the ones preferring for a traditional 9-5 job (and an intact social and personal life) chose a medical office to work at. Thus, a rare luxury (especially true for the medical industry) of picking the preferred work-life balance and respective work environment is rendered to MAs.

Statistically speaking, most medical assistants in the US opt for the clinical route. Work environment wise, here, 58% of MAs are working at offices of physicians. Only 15% have chosen hospitals as preferred job settings, and 9% of MAs work at outpatient care centers, while 4% at offices of chiropractors. Generally, most MAs work full-time, but some also choose weekend and evening shifts. Very few MAs end up being scheduled to cover on holidays or overnight shifts.

CNA Work Atmosphere

Nursing assistants are always in direct connection with the patients. They are more likely to work across an environment of large medical establishments and hospitals housing patients that need add-on care. Thus, since CNA’s day to day services are central to the patient’s living in the center, their valuable patient care is required round-the-clock. Therefore, CNAs usually have to serve more night shifts and duties over holidays and weekends compared to MAs. Their work environment does include more instances of duty across odd hours.

According to BLS reports, most nursing assistants are working across skilled nursing care environments (34% of the total employed in the US). At the same time, 32% of CNAs are opting for work environments of hospitals (state, local and private settings). In comparison, 10% are employed across retirement care communities and assisting living facilities for the elderly, and 6% of CNAs also have chosen the home healthcare environment to discharge their duties. The remaining 4% of the professionals are working across the government jobs.

Thus, concerning work environments, CNAs have a little less flexibility as compared to MAs. While MAs can pick from a varied set of alternative job atmospheres and work-life settings, CNAs are more involved in core patient care services directly, and hence have to adhere to odd working schedules when the need may be. It is part and parcel of their job responsibility as a nursing aid.

Medical Assistant vs CNA: Salary Differences

As per BLS May 2021 occupational employment and wages report, medical assistants in the USA earned an hourly pay of $18.36 and an annual salary of $38,190 on average. On the other hand, nursing assistants earned an hourly wage of $15.99 and yearly wages of $33,250 on average in the US.

According to, MAs with 2-3 years of experience and selected qualifications draw an hourly pay of $18.29 in the United States. On the other hand, CNAs with the same experience and selected qualifications earn $19.82 per hour in the country.

Salaries of medical assistants by years of experience in the US:

Years of experience Per hour
Less than 1 year $17.10
1-2 years $17.83
3-5 years $19.13
6-9 years $19.49
More than 10 years $21.57

Source: (as of January 10, 2023)

Salaries of nursing assistants by years of experience in the United States:

Years of experience Per hour
Less than 1 year $19.03
1-2 years $19.22
3-5 years $20.24
6-9 years $20.75
More than 10 years $22.87

Source: (as of January 10, 2023) postulates the annual salary of medical assistants in the US as $38,590 (as of December, 27, 2022). The approximate range falls between $35,575 and $41,667 depending on training, certifications, state location, and experience. Average annual pay for CNAs are postulated as $33,016 (as of December 27, 2022). It ranges between $30,008 and $37,090 depending on several factors such as experience years and add-on qualifications.

Comparison of salaries drawn by MAs and CNAs across hourly and annual rates

Salary Type Medical Assistant Nursing Assistant
Hourly Salary ( as of January 10, 2023) $18.29 $19.82
Hourly Salary  ( as of January 2, 2023) $17.02 $15.45
Annual Salary ( as of December 27, 2022) $38,590 $33.016

As can be seen in the table above, MAs were found to be paid more in comparison to CNAs in the country. The figures hold true across different research bodies such as BLS, Indeed, Salary, and Payscale.

Medical Assistant vs CNA: Employment and Future Demand

Currently, 743,500 medical assistants and 1,343,700 nursing assistants are employed in America, according to BLS December 2022 estimates. BLS estimates a 5% growth for CNAs and a 16% growth for medical assistants in the USA (2021-2031).

Growth projected in the employment of medical assistants

2020 2030 Percent Change Projected Annual Openings
Projected MA Jobs 720,900 853,500 18.4% 104,400

Source: Projection Central

From 2020 to 2030, a significant 18.4%% increase in demand for medical assistants is to be witnessed across the country.

Growth projected in the employment of CNAs

2020 2030 Percent Change Projected Annual Openings
Projected CNA Jobs 1,396,700 1,512,000 8.3% 187,000

Source: Projection Central

CNAs can expect a 8.3% growth in the number of jobs in the 2020-2030 period.

There is a significant difference in the growth projections and demand for MAs and CNAs. As statistically stipulated above, medical assistants are estimated to see more than double growth prospects in terms of employability as compared to CNAs in the United States.

Medical Assistant vs CNA: Type of Jobs

Medical Assistant Jobs

MAs can go on to work in many different job positions across a variety of healthcare facilities. Job roles are also plenty providing distinct opportunities. Some of these include:

  • Phlebotomist – Medical assistants can aim to work as a phlebotomist. Venipuncture techniques training is rendered to MAs across programs to enable them to draw blood. You can also opt for specific add-on certificates in phlebotomy for furthering your CV. It is a super important function when it comes to healthcare and boosts your employability. In terms of salary prospects, MAs, who are phlebotomists too, earn a little more annually than other medical assistants.
  • Medical Office Assistant – Want to capitalize on the incredibly stable career prospects of the medical industry and yet remain aloof from syringes and blood? Yes, this is indeed possible when you work specifically as medical office assistants. These professionals just need to complete the administrative modules of MA training. There are particular courses aimed for Medical Office Assistants only. Duties include only admin-related tasks such as bookkeeping, insurance claiming, reception tasks, stocking and inventory, appointments and billing, etc.
  • EKG Technician – MAs can also pursue EKG as their focus area and become EKG technicians. Electrocardiograph Medical Assistants conduct a diagnostic assessment of cardiovascular issues. The MAs trained in the EKG test for irregularities in the functions of the heart. They, thus, help doctors prevent chances of heart attacks and diseases, ensuring the patient’s heart is healthy and sound. Basic EKG training is provided across accredited MA programs so that you may have a competitive advantage via this route. However, the majority of the EKG experience is attained at the workplace from your initial employers. EKG technicians or MAs with specialized EKG training often earn considerably more as well ($14-$47 per hour). Many students pursue an add-on specialized certification in EKG before looking for jobs.
  • Surgical Assistant – Medical assistants can also work as surgical assistants and technicians. It involves preparing the surgery room, gear, and assisting the surgeons during the process. It is indeed a great experience as you may gain insights and decide on pursuing higher education to become a certified surgeon in the future. Note: Surgeons are one of the most highly paid medical professionals.

Certified Nursing Assistant Jobs

Certified nursing assistants also have various types of jobs to opt for. However, these majorly remain under the umbrella duty of direct patient care. Some of the job roles that CNAs can pick include:

  • Home Health Aides – CNAs also work as home health aides. It is similar to skilled nursing facilities with one significant difference. The key benefit here is a much better patient ratio. Across skilled nursing facilities and hospitals, CNAs usually are expected to take care of 10-15 patients, whereas as home health aides, they are entrusted with the care of a single patient. However, patient attachment and feeling low on the loss of him/her is an issue that home health aides sometimes have to deal with.
  • Licensed Practice Nurse (LPN) – Traditionally, the next step for a CNA is to further their career through the LPN route. An LPN stands for a licensed practical nurse. LPNs are eligible to carry out basic nursing practices.
  • Registered Nurse (RN) – Post LPN, the CNA aims to become a Registered Nurse for critical career push and growth. Salaries also blow up considerably once the professional has achieved this benchmark. Expect to earn $77,600 per year and $37.31 per hour on becoming a registered nurse, as per BLS estimates.
  • Traveling CNA – Travelling nursing assistance is another domain where CNAs can boost their career. Much like the traveling nurses, Traveling CNAs go across more than one facility and to homes of clients. Thus, no one day is the same; they get to interact with a variety of patients and also end up earning more.
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Written by : Casey Gardner

Casey Gardner is both a healthcare support professional and an accomplished content creator.  She has been working as a certified health care professional with marketable skills as a physician assistant,  and a qualified medical assistant for last two decades. She has dedicated her nursing career to produce over hundreds of content pieces since 2001, and her work has been published both online as well as offline.


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