CNA vs. MA: Choosing the Right Career Path
The roles of a certified nursing assistant and medical assistant are healthcare support occupations and considered entry level jobs that require training, certification and/or licensing, and a certain set of skills and characteristics to be successful. These roles have long been sought after by persons interested in the healthcare field.
The general qualifications require a high school diploma or GED, and 18 years of age. In some cases, students in high school can elect to add this training to their academic schedules so that, by the time they graduate from high school, they have completed requirements to gain certification, and/or sit for competency exams for licensure.
Key characteristics of successful CNAs and MAs:
- Good Communication Skills: Effective, clear communication and good listening skills are needed in order to address client daily care needs and concerns. Good verbal and written communication is very important as a member of the health care team and in reporting to the licensed staff and other colleagues.
- Detail Oriented: The specific and nuances matter when taking care of clients. Precision with taking vital signs, documentation, and following instructions for specific types of client needs are important and require detail and focus.
- Empathy and Compassion: Use of these vital characteristics are key in caring for the sick, traumatized, or injured, children, adults, families and the elderly. A true heart for caring is necessary.
- Unbiased and Culturally Aware: Open and aware of the diverse population of clients including persons with various cultural, spiritual, political and personal beliefs that may differ from your own. This includes respectfully serving all clients equally regardless of race, religion, income, status, gender identification, ethnicity, and/or disability.
- Strong Stomach: Ability to handle, sights, smells and exposure to blood and body fluids.
- Patience and Humility: The clients served on a daily basis are in need of help and assistance for various reasons. The person in these roles must be aware of the individualized needs of those they serve. This requires patience and can be very humbling to realize that someone is reliant upon you to assist them with basic activities of living.
- Physical agility: A CNA and MA spend a large portion of the day on their feet. They need to be comfortable and capable to perform physical tasks that involve client support, lifting or moving.
What are the primary duties of a certified nursing assistant?
The CNA works under the direct supervision of either a licensed practical nurse, licensed vocational nurse or a professional registered nurse. The licensed nurse creates and orchestrates the individualized plan of care for the client. The CNA assists and plays a major role in providing the basic care and assistance with activities of daily living required by the client.
Typical responsibilities for client care assigned to the CNA include and are not limited to:
- Bathing assistance: providing or assisting with a full bed bath or shower
- Linen changes
- Toileting via bed pan, bed side commode or restroom
- Skin care
- Turn, reposition, walk, and transfer clients
- Attentive to client needs and concerns
- Measure vital signs, intake and output
- Documentation in writing and/or through computer/electronic health record
- Verbal and written communication to licensed nurse
- Serve meals and/or feed clients
- Responsible for keeping client immediate surroundings clean and tidy
- Adherence to safety, infection control and emergency procedures
- Stock supplies
The specific client-care training a CNA receives allows them to perform collaborative care as a vital member of the team. A CNA spends the most time with the client, becoming a trusted care giver. They have a wide selection of options when it comes to work environments, including nursing homes, assisted living, hospitals, residential care homes or a clients’ private home. The client population can be infants, children, adults, or elders. Scheduled work hours can vary from 8-12 hour shifts that cover days, evenings, nights, weekends, and holidays.
What are the primary responsibilities of a medical assistant?
Medical assistants work alongside physicians, who provide site-specific training and direction for clerical, technical and/or clinical tasks. The MA is trained for multiple levels of responsibilities, will learn quite a bit through on the job training toward assisting the physician with specialty and site specific administrative and/or clinical duties that include but are not limited to:
- Obtaining client medical and medication history
- Measuring vital signs
- Communicate results and care outcomes to healthcare provider
- Assisting healthcare provider during exams
- Instructing patients about medication and special diets
- Preparing and administering medications as directed by a physician
- Phlebotomy and other basic laboratory tasks
- Specific client care as directed by healthcare provider
- Adherence to safety, infection control and emergency procedures
- Documentation and access of Electronic Medical Records per HIPPAA
- Maintain client scheduling
- Answering emails, phone calls etc.
- Assist in appropriate billing and coding to file for insurances
- Arranging client transport and/or transfer to emergency room or hospitals.
Medical assistants are multiskilled members of the health care team who perform vital administrative and clinical procedures under the supervision of licensed health care providers. The MA traditionally works in ambulatory care facilities, laboratories, outpatient medical clinics, urgent care sites and at medical offices to include specialty sites. Scheduled work hours can vary with shifts that usually cover days, evenings, weekends, and some holidays.
Are there limitations in job duties?
Both of these roles are supported with guidance and instruction provided by a licensed health professional who helps direct the duties and assignments. Each role has what is called a Scope of Practice. You will learn these guidelines based on the path you decide and the state in which your certification or license is obtained.
Are there limitations in career development?
The CNA and MA roles are considered entry level positions. Both roles have opportunities for growth by learning and adding to your skill set. As an example, a CNA in many states can be certified to assist with medication administration. With additional training, an MA can provide certain injections. In some organizations there is growth in the area of leadership by becoming a team leader or getting involved with special projects and initiatives. Many people choose these rewarding careers as their “life’s work” and enjoy the rewards that come from working daily with their clients. Others select these roles as a way to begin their career path into the world of healthcare, meet and make connections with others that find this work satisfying.
Which role is right for me?
Take a moment and consider your short- and long-term goals. Consider the information presented above and look at the comparison chart below. Assess which role seems to fit best into your overall plan, personal characteristics, and the type of work and environment that best suits you.
|Certified Nursing Assistant||Medical Assistant|
|Typical Length of Program||4 to 10 weeks||1 to 2 years|
|Median Salary||$28,540 per year||$33,610 per year|
|Training Requirements||A Certified Nursing Assistant must complete a program that is approved by the state board in which they desire to practice.||Medical Assistants typically earn a postsecondary degree, but occupation can be gained through on-site, or on-the-job training. Certification is strongly preferred.|
|Certification||A certification of completion from an accredited program will be needed in order to take the standard test for CNA state board licensing. This needs to come from an accredited school recognized by your state. Courses range anywhere from 6 weeks to 1 year.|
A valid basic life support/CPR certification will also be required.
|The Medical Assistant must complete and graduate from an accredited vocational/technical school or college program deemed acceptable by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools. This formal coursework takes 1-2 years (depending on certification, diploma, or AS degree options) and is required in order to take the certified medical assistant (CMA) exam for certification.|
A valid basic life support/CPR certification will be required.
If the position and role is a good fit, either of these jobs can be very rewarding or lead to other healthcare related jobs or careers. In addition to being a viable way to earn a living, many organizations that hire persons full time provide paid vacations, leave and offerings of health and life insurance. There may be additional perks, retirement plans, wellness programs, and tuition reimbursement.