Medical Assistant vs CNA Nurse

Entering the healthcare profession may be done in several ways. Two of the most common professions for entry level healthcare workers are that of Medical Assistant (MA) and Nurse Assistant (commonly referred to as a CNA). Both of these roles involve the medical field but their job descriptions are very different.

This article will describe the difference so that you can decide between a career as a medical assistant vs. a career as a nurse assistant.

Note that job demand for both professions is soaring: Medical assistants will see a 23% increase in demand by 2024, and nurse assistants will see an 18% increase.

What is a CNA Nurse Assistant?

A certified nurse assistant assists a registered nurse in providing basic, direct care services to patients. This is almost entirely basic, clinical work.

Some of their common duties are:

  • Taking vital signs of the patient
  • Assisting the patient with going to the bathroom
  • Bathing the patient
  • Making beds
  • Help patient to walk
  • Mouth and hair care
  • Dressing
  • Feeding
  • Performing other direct care activities for patients who need constant care in a nursing home or hospital setting

Generally, a certified nursing assistant will help people perform the most basic life tasks that they cannot currently do for themselves.

What is a Medical Assistant?

A medical assistant performs performs both administrative and clinical tasks in doctors’ offices, hospitals, nursing homes and other types of healthcare facilities.

Some of the clerical and clinical duties they do include;

  • Recording the patient’s history and personal data
  • Taking their vital signs, including weight and blood pressure
  • Assist the doctor with doing a patient exam
  • Provide the patient with injections or medications as directed by a doctor or nurse
  • Prepare blood tests
  • Enter patient data into electronic medical records

Some MAs will focus more on clinical related work and patient care, while others may focus on administrative work. Some will do both, depending upon the size and type of facility.

Much of an MA’s day is often focused upon non-medical assignments. These may or may not be enjoyable depending upon the person. Some of these duties are:

  • Answering phones
  • Filing patient records
  • Setting up appointments
  • Calling patients with medical results

Education Requirements for CNAs

CNA training typically takes only one to three months and may be completed at:

  • Community colleges
  • Nursing homes
  • Hospitals
  • Vocational schools

Students must complete clinical training in addition to their classwork. The majority of these programs are located on campus in many community colleges and vocational schools in each state.

Education Requirements for Medical Assistants

Most medical assistant graduate from associate’s degree or diploma programs for MAs. There are no precise educational requirements that cross all states, but most employers will prefer to hire someone who has graduated from one of these programs.

Medical assistant programs are available at community colleges, vocational schools, and technical schools. There also are many online programs available that take one year or so to complete.

Two online MA programs worthy of your consideration are:

  • Herzing University: This is an online university that provides each MA graduate with the clinical and administrative skills they need to be employed by a medical office, nursing home or hospital. This online program is very versatile as it offers a bachelor science; an associate’s degree and a diploma program. All of them are in healthcare management and medical assisting. Which you do depends upon how long you want to be in school before you begin to work.
  • Pima Medical Institute: This MA program also is online and can be completed in less than a year. The instructors in this accredited program are highly qualified to provide all students with the latest clinical and administrative skills to achieve rapid promotion in the field. Critical coursework is offered in medical office laboratory procedures; examination skills; coding and billing in a clinical environment; and assisting with simple surgical procedures.

Licensing Requirements for CNAs

Nurse assistant licensure is regulated by both federal and state law. CNAs generally must finish at least 75 hours of training in a certification or diploma program. They also have to pass a state examination to be certified to work as a CNA.

You should check with your state government website to determine how to obtain your license in your state. For example, the state of Texas has a page on its Department of Aging and Disability Services website that instructs students on how to obtain Texas CNA licensure. Each state has its own state-approved education programs and competency examinations.

Licensing Requirements for Medical Assistants

Medical assistants do not have to have a license in most states. You used to be able to become an MA with just a high school diploma but more MAs must have a certificate as a medical assistant and be registered or certified after they have completed their education.

To become a registered medical assistant, you need to have a minimum of five years of medical assistant experience, or a medical assistant degree. You also need to take the examination given by the American Registry of Medical Assistants.

Another option is to become a certified medical assistant. This examination is done by the American Association of Medical Assistants. With your certificate and your registration or certification, you will be among the most desirable job candidates.


A vital factor for selecting either a nurse assistant or medical assistant program is accreditation. You should know if the program has been reviewed by a highly regarded organization in the field so that you know your education has value.

For MA schools, look for accreditation from one or both of these respected organizations:

For nurse assistants, each state should have a list of approved programs at their local community colleges and vocational schools. There is no specific association or organization on a national level that accredits these programs.

Overall, both the nurse assistant and medical assistant field offer the entry level healthcare professional a great opportunity to get to work in a very popular and growing field. Which you choose depends upon how exactly you want to spend your day – caring for patients exclusively and on a long term basis (CNA), or more on a one time basis and also on administrative tasks (MA)?

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Written by Robert Sanchez
Robert Sanchez is's Chief Editorialist. Robert Sanchez has over 10 years experience in the Healthcare field and more recently has become an avid writer advising on career and job topics in this exciting field.

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