Should I Choose Medical Assistant or Nurse (LPN or RN)? Which is better?

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Not only doctors and physicians, but adept assistants and other professionals in the healthcare field are of immense significance today. We will look at two such healthcare occupations, Medical Assistants and Nurses. Often people get confused as to what kind of duties do each of these professions perform and what are the key differences. Let us start by understanding what each of these occupations entails.

What is a Medical Assistant?

Medical assistant or clinical assistants are professionals supporting physicians or other medical professionals in a cross-functional array of duties. They are skilled in both clinical and administrative competencies. Some of their duties include helping the patients understand their treatment procedures, procuring medical histories, and preparing patients for examination by the doctors.

What is a Nurse?

Another pivotal healthcare occupation is that of a nurse. Nurses are mainly concerned with providing first-hand care to the patients. They work primarily in hospitals and clinics. Their specific duties include carrying out diagnostic tests, giving vaccines, counseling patients on their wellbeing, etc.

Differences Between a Medical Assistant and a Nurse

As discussed, both nurses and MAs are critical in their own right across medical facilities. However, there are specific, clear distinctions between these two occupations, and we shall be looking at these points of differences closely:

  1. Education

    CMA Education Requirements

    For a medical assistant, an associate degree is highly encouraged though not necessary. MAs can learn by shadowing seniors at work or also take up a course online. In fact, a shorter diploma program or certification degree is an excellent option for those who don’t want to undertake a comprehensive associate study. Some of these short (less than 1 year) programs are accredited and allow you to sit for crucial certification exams.

    LPN/RN Education Requirements

    For nurses, the story is a little distinct. Certified education, in this case, is needed mandatorily. Licensed Practical Nurses (LPN) can complete an associate’s degree. However, if you want to become a registered nurse (RN), you must generally pursue more in-depth training. The essential requirement is to hold either a diploma, an associate’s degree, or a bachelor’s degree from a nursing program with the licensing board’s approval in the state they wish to practice. This is a usual licensing prerequisite by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing.

    In comparison, while formal training is not mandatory for MAs, it is indeed required for nurses. Also, medical assistant programs focus on both clinical and admin-related skills, while programs for nursing focus on more advanced clinical tasks and duties.

  2. Training Length

    How Long to Become a Certified MA?

    Medical assistants enrolled in an associate’s degree take around 2 years to complete their training. Those taking up diploma programs take between 9 to 12 months to finish program.

    How Long to Become a Nurse?

    Associate degrees for LPNs would also extend for around 2 years. RNs can complete a nursing diploma (offered by hospitals) within about 3 years of the training period. They can opt for an associate’s degree in nursing (2-3 years long) or a bachelor’s degree (BSN extending for 4 years).

    Thus, the minimum training periods for nurses are generally longer than those for MAs.

  3. Cost of Program

    How Much do MA Programs Cost?

    The cost of your medical assistant program would depend on the type of degree you’re completing as well as the kind of school you have enrolled in. Typically, community colleges and public schools charge a considerably lesser fee. Since certification programs and diplomas extend for only a year, they’re more affordable than a 2-year associate’s training. Community college 1-year courses can range anywhere between $2,500 and $10,000, while 2-year degrees range between $6,000 and $15,000 per year for public and private schools.

    Note: Cost of books, transportation, etc. may not be included in this estimate and will be charged on actuals.

    How Much do Nursing Programs Cost?

    For nursing courses too, fees vary depending on specific factors. Tuition fees for a BSN (4-year bachelor’s degree) range between $40,000 to well above $100,000 per year in large universities and private schools. At community colleges, BSN degrees are usually much more affordable ($3,000 to $14,000 per year). In-state and out-state differences are also in place, with local students paying considerably less to complete the said programs. Associate degrees can also cost an aspiring nurse much lesser (starting from $6,000). Thus, the range of fees is extensive, extending from $6,000 to $100,000 a year.

    Note: Over and above the fees, nurses spend between $1,000 to $3,000 on textbooks. They must also pay up for essential apparatus (stethoscopes, uniforms, etc.). Health insurance (usually mandatory for this occupation) costs between $1,000 and $4,000 a year.

  4. School Accreditation

    MA School Accreditation

    If, as an MA, you would like to get certified (highly encouraged for better career prospects), your school’s program must be accredited by either CAAHEP or ABHES. The American Association of Medical Assistants calls for the program to be accredited by a body having the approval of the United States Department of Education’s Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

    Nursing School Accreditation

    To become a licensed RN, you must first sit for the NCLEX exam. To take this exam, you would first have to complete a program that has been approved by the state they’re planning on working in. Each state has its board of nursing, which can be contacted for details about the above. Generally speaking, 2 major accrediting bodies are in place for all UG nursing courses:

  5. Certification and Licensure Requirements

    MA Certification

    MAs do not need to be licensed to work in many states across the USA. However, some states do have specific requirements with regard to their certification. Thus, certification needs for medical assistants differ from state to state. All in all, the states that require certified MAs, usually call for certification through the AAMA as a mandatory requirement. To get certified from the AAMA, one has to take the CMA certification exam, administered by the National Board of Medical Examiners. This test consists of 200 multiple-choice questions, and medical assistants have to register in advance for the examination.

    Nurse Licensure

    To get the Registered Nurse license, one has to clear NCLEX. This license is given by the respective state’s board of nursing. Other accrediting bodies like AACN-American Association of CRITICAL care NURSES and NCC-National Certificate CORPORATION also issue certifications to nurses.

  6. Recertification Requirements

    Medical Assistant

    After every 60 months, one has to recertify for the Certified Medical Assitant credential by the AAMA. MAs must have continuing education credits for the re-certification process.

    Nurse (RN)

    For nurses, the requirements vary from state to state. Some states need RNs to complete a set number of continuing education hours within a pre-defined period to retain their license to practice in the said location.

  7. Duties and Responsibilities

    MA Job Duties

    While they perform a complex variety of tasks, and no two days are the same, medical assistant duties can be broadly divided into two key categories, clinical and administrative functions:

    • Clinical Duties: These include crucial medical responsibilities such as drawing blood, taking electrocardiograms, preparing doses and refills of prescribed medications, checking vital signs, preparing patients for X-rays, etc.
    • Administrative Duties: These include all sorts of admin, official tasks in the healthcare field, such as appointment scheduling, filing and coding of insurance forms, bookkeeping, answering phone inquiries, and stocking up supplies.

    CMAs may either specialize in only administrative or only clinical duties, or a combination of both. They may also pick one specific area to gain expertise in, such as obstetrics and podiatry.

    Nurse Job Duties

    Nurses are entrusted with primary patient-centered care and counseling. LPN specific duties can include administering IV medications and monitoring the blood pressure of patients. They ensure that all the vitals are as per the acceptable standards by keeping a strict check. Other duties that LPNs may conduct from time to time include treating bedsores and performing catheterizations. They’re often the first face patients see while entering a center. Registered Nurses may pick up a key specialty area to focus on, such as:

    • Endocrinology
    • Orthopedics
    • Cardiac Nursing
    • Case Management
    • Critical Care
    • Dialysis
    • Emergency and Trauma
    • Forensics

    Thus, as you must have realized, there may be some overlapping in some of the MA and LPN duties. For instance, both medical assistants and LPNs record medical histories, counsel patients, and assess vital signs.

    However, the critical difference here is that MAs carry out both clinical and administrative duties, whereas nurses are entrusted with only clinical functions. The primary responsibilities of all nurses are patient-centered care and related functions. Thus, they do not carry admin-related tasks, unlike medical assistants. MAs can carry out patient-care only as per what has been assigned to them by their supervising doctor. Nurses also follow the instructions of their superiors; however, they are also allowed to draft patient care plans.

    All in all, while there may be some similarities in the duties MAs and nurses perform, nurses usually take over for the more advanced responsibilities. For instance, basic wounds may be treated by MAs, but for more severe burns or cuts, nurses are called upon.

  8. Scope of Practice

    Medical Assistants

    CMAs work in big groups helping both medical personnel and patients in clinical or administrative tasks. They’re employed directly under a supervising licensed doctor or a registered nurse. Primary clinical duties and admin-related functions are performed by MAs, as discussed above. They may administer medications sometimes under the guidance of their doctor. You can read here- the detailed scope of practice for medical assistants.

    Nurses

    Both Registered and Licensed Practical Nurses report to a supervising doctor but operate as per their licenses. With more in-depth training, they’re also entitled to carry out more complex tasks as compared to MAs. RNs may work in big groups in hospitals alongside doctors, MAs, and other healthcare professionals. They may also perform individually for resident patients in a nursing home.

  9. Skills and Qualities

    Medical Assistant Skills

    Typical medical assistant skills include crucial clinical and interpersonal competencies. MAs must be detail-oriented, have a calm, patient demeanor, and strong know-how of medical terms and human anatomy. They must also possess significant administrative, office, and computer abilities such as financial bookkeeping skills, electronic health recording, basic excel, and more.

    Nurse Skills

    The main skills that nurses are called out are more personality-related, such as deep-rooted empathy and compassion. Nurses also must have strong attention to detail to handle sophisticated diagnostic tools error-free. Since the key duty of nurses is primary patient-care and interaction, communication and interpersonal skills become paramount. Nurses are required to think critically and must be super neat organizers. They should also have the considerable physical stamina to walk around or stand for long periods, lift and move around patients when needed, and the like.

    Emotional stability is another important skill that nurses and MAs must possess alike. Thus, as you can see, many skills overlap for both MAs and Nurses. While MAs are assessed more based on technical admin-related competencies, nurses are expected to be more skilled at human-centered psychological skills.

  10. Work Settings and Shifts

    MA Workplace Environment

    MAs can pick from various settings such as hospitals, private clinics, ambulatory emergency services, and volunteering centers to work at. Depending on what they’re looking at in terms of work schedule and flexibility, they may go with the best-suited work-environment. For instance, medical assistants, despite working in the healthcare industry, can choose preferably normalized 9 to 5 schedules in medical office jobs.

    Nurse Work Atmosphere

    Nurses work in physicians’ offices, public or private hospitals, and nursing homes. Some untraditional work environments that nurses may also choose include schools, military houses, prisons, etc.  Most nurses in the US work 12-hour shifts, especially those in acute-care facilities. Both day and night shifts are in place for these professionals, usually taken as 7 PM to 7 AM, with some shifts extending from 3 AM to 3 PM. Nurses, who work on extra sensitive cases such as surgery and dialysis, or those associated with the intensive care units, need to be available on call. Thus, they work overtime (add-on hours) over and above their regular shifts. In minority cases, nurses may also be employed for 8 or 10-hour shifts.

  11. Salary

    LPNs are rendered around $22.83 per hour and $47,480 per year on an average in the USA, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2019). The Bureau estimates the salaries of RNs in the USA as $37.24 per hour and $77,460 per year. Medical Assistants are estimated to earn around $16.73 per hour and $34,800 per year on an average in the US.

    Source Medical Assistant Pay LPN Pay Registered Nurse Pay
    Indeed $15.57 $26.73 $29.28
    Salary.com $17 $24 $31
    Payscale $15.36 $20.69 $30.04

    Thus, the best wages are achieved by the registered nurses, followed by LPNs and then the MAs.

  12. Employment and Future Demand

    A total of 725,200 jobs (practicing MAs) were in place in the USA as per BLS May 2019 estimates. On the other hand, 2,982,280 Registered Nurses and 721,700 Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses (Source: BLS) were employed across the country, according to BLS.

    Jobs for MAs are projected to grow by a significant 19% from 2019 to 2029. LPN jobs are to increase by 9% and RN jobs by 7% in the same period.

    MA Job Outlook

    Estimated Employment and Projected Growth (Medical Assistants)
    Base Year Employment
    (2018)
    Projected Employment
    (2028)
    Percentage Change Annual Job Openings
    686,600 841,500 +23% 99,700

    Source: careeronestop.org

    Nurse Future Demand

    Estimated Employment and Projected Growth (Registered Nurses)
    Base Year Employment
    (2018)
    Projected Employment
    (2028)
    Percentage Change Annual Job Openings
    3,059,800 3,431,300 +12% 210,400

    Source: careeronestop.org

    Growth projections for both MAs and Nurses are much higher than the national average growth projection for all occupations across the USA. Both Nurses and MAs are bound to enjoy a rather promising career trajectory in the coming years across the country.

    However, as can be seen above, even though nurses occupy a greater number of vacancies and jobs in the country, MAs are estimated to enjoy significantly higher growth in the number of jobs in the future ( 23% vs 12%).

  13. Type of Jobs

    When treading on a particular career stream, it’s essential to look at what other related occupations may be pursued at a later stage if one decides to change paths.

    Alternative Jobs for MAs

    • Phlebotomist: Phlebotomists specialize in taking blood, manage transfusions, and carry out research in the field. They make around $12.89 per hour on average in the US.
    • Medical Office Assistant: This occupation specializes in only the admin-related functions of medical assisting, such as performing reception tasks, scheduling appointments, and billing procedures. These professionals earn around $14.84 per hour on average in the US.
    • EKG Technician: These specialize in measuring and monitoring heart activities and electrical impulses. Electrocardiograms are used to diagnose the patient’s heart conditions. These professionals earn $18.24 per hour (better than average MA pay) in the US.
    • Surgical Technician: This job involves more advanced experience with assisting in delicate surgical procedures. Even though a little more complex, it is a great path to pick as the salary is considerably higher than the other related occupations ($31.73 per on average) in the US.

    Alternative Jobs for Nurses

    • LPN: Licensed Practical Nurses perform many similar activities as a CNA, alongside some more extensive care duties. They’re most of the time working under a supervising RN or Physician. They get around $26.73 per hour on average in the USA.
    • Registered Nurse: RNs form the largest group of healthcare personnel. They’re way more advanced on the hierarchy than CNAs and LPNs. They record and observe patients’ conditions and educate them about what exactly is to be done. The average wage drawn by RNs in the USA per hour is $29.28.
    • Nurse Anesthetist: These kinds of nurses are more advanced in trade, specializing in giving anesthesia to patients for surgical procedures. Licensed Registered Anesthetists earn quite a handsome pay at $116 per hour in the USA on an average.
    • Nurse Practitioner: These are advanced, practice-registered nurses who are permitted to order lab tests, interpret results, diagnose ailments, and formulate treatments. They earned $86.56 on average in the US.
    • Travel Nurse: Travel Nurses cover for short-term roles. They may be assigned to staffing agencies and appointed to diverse work settings to fill in gaps and shortages of nurses.
    • Emergency Room Nurse: ER nurses deal with patients undergone severe injuries and trauma. They render urgent care to these patients and work in situations of time crunch and crisis. Thus, it is imperative for them to think super fast and right to help stabilize the condition of patients.
    • RN Manager: Nurse Managers enjoy fast-paced jobs with a multitude of facets. They instruct, organize, and manage the nursing staff in their work-setting (usually hospitals).  Nurse Managers get $37.68 on an average per hour in the US.
  14. Types of Specializations

    MAs and Nurses can pick from various specializations depending on their career goals and skill-sets. Let us explore what kind of areas can each of them specialize in.

    RN Specializations

    • Endocrinology: Nurses can specialize in endocrinology, i.e., the study of the endocrine system in the human body. Typically, they deal with bodily glands and related hormones.
    • Orthopedics: Orthopedics refers to the musculoskeletal system. This system is made up of muscles, bones, joints, ligaments, and tendons. Nurses can specialize in this area, particularly.
    • Cardiac Nursing: Cardiac Nurses work in hospitals and other facilities with patients suffering from heart problems. These can include coronary artery disease, cardiac dysrhythmia, myocardial infarction, or congestive heart failure.
    • Case Management: It is a term given to assess, plan, and facilitate the care given to patients to meet his/her medical needs and family’s requirements. It is a collaborative process done in a team sometimes and while interacting with the patient’s close family. Some nurses specialize in only managing cases as per these procedures.
    • Critical Care: Critical care is provided to hospital patients who are suffering from serious health ailments. These patients need a lot of medical care and monitoring. Therefore, specialized nurses are entrusted to them.
    • Dialysis: The process of filtering and purifying one’s blood using machines is called dialysis. People with kidney ailments need such assistance. Some nurses acquire specialized training to serve these kinds of patients.
    • Emergency and Trauma: Trauma centers treat patients with severe, high-risk injuries. These are crisis situations such as car crash accidents, third-degree burns, and the like. Nurses in this area are trained to think on foot and come up with the best solutions in the least amount of time while maintaining their calm at all levels.
    • Forensics: Some nurses may also specialize in forensics and assisting the professionals in carrying out analysis and reporting.
    • Genetics: Genetics is concerned with the study of genes, genetic variation, and heredity in organisms. RNs can also specialize in this field.

    Medical Assistant Specializations

    • Chiropractic Medicine: Chiropractic medicine deals with the diagnosis and treatment of musculoskeletal disorders. The focus is especially on the spine. MAs can specialize in this field, helping in pain relief mechanisms for aching muscles, bones, ligaments, etc.
    • Obstetrics: This field is connected with pregnancy, childbirth and the postpartum period, and gynecology on the whole. MAs can indeed specialize in this area too.
    • Podiatry: Podiatry is concerned with foot and ankle surgeries. MAs can help in studying and treating disorders of the lower extremity in this field.
    • Pediatric: Pediatric Medical Assistants deal with the medical care of infants, children, and adolescents (from birth to 18 years of age). Thus, MAs can specialize in this area, especially if they enjoy being around kids.
    • Administrative: As discussed earlier, medical assistants may pick to specialize only in admin-related duties. They can become medical administrative assistants, especially if they would like to stay away from blood and vaccines and yet be working in the healthcare field.

Similarities Between a Medical Assistant and a Nurse

All in all, there are significant differences between MAs and Nurses, especially in terms of education and certification requirements, salaries, and job growth opportunities. However, there are some key similarities too, such as:

  • Both MAs and Nurses look after key clinical functions such as recording vital signs, taking down medical histories, and preparing patients for diagnosis. There is a cross-over for the lighter activities, such as checking for temperature and blood pressure, done by medical assistants as well as nurses.
  • Nurses are concerned primarily with patient care and need empathetic interpersonal skills for the same. However, MAs are concerned with educating patients, making them feel comfortable, and at ease whenever required. Thus, patient-care and interaction is a common cross-over across both of the occupations.
  • Both MAs and Nurses need to be well-versed in crucial areas of medical study such as medical terminology, human anatomy, medical law, etc.
  • Both MAs and Nurses need a calm, compassionate head to deal with distressed patients. They must have an excellent orientation to the minute details and great time-management skills.
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Get information on Medical Assistant programs by entering your zip code and request enrollment information.

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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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