What Is a CNA?
A CNA, or certified nursing assistant, is an entry-level member of a patient’s healthcare team, performing important patient-centered tasks under the supervision of licensed nursing staff. Although a CNA is not a nurse, they work very closely with nurses, physicians, and other healthcare providers.
Becoming a CNA is the path that many people take to start their career in healthcare. Some may move onto more advanced levels of nursing, while others are satisfied with the many rewards of working as a CNA. In either case, it will take you an average of only 10 weeks—and possibly as few as four—to complete the necessary education to become a certified nursing assistant.
This page will discuss typical CNA responsibilities and tasks, where CNAs work, the types of patients they interact with, the pros and cons of the job, and more.
What Does a CNA Do?
CNAs ensure the wellbeing of their patients by performing a variety of tasks that help with daily living activities. Because CNAs typically spend more time with patients than nurses or doctors, they understand their behaviors and health statuses.
They get to know each patient, their typical behaviors, and their general state of health and are often the first to notice physical or emotional changes. Whether identifying decreased mobility, increased pain, or memory issues, CNAs play important roles in the early detection of symptoms and may identify issues that other healthcare personnel do not.
Individual tasks can vary based on where a CNA works and the type of patients they serve, but typical responsibilities include:
- Answering call buttons and alerting nurses to emergencies
- Monitoring patient needs and reporting any issues to other healthcare personnel
- Helping patients with their daily needs, such as eating, bathing, dressing, and toileting
- Ensuring patient comfort by changing bedding, filling water jugs, and positioning items so they are in reach
- Repositioning patients in beds
- Helping patients move from a bed to a chair or wheelchair and back
- Assisting with lifting patients from their bed to examination tables, surgical tables, or stretchers
Depending on state regulations and facility requirements, some CNAs may perform additional advanced duties that include:
- Measuring and recording food and liquid consumption
- Accompanying patients to off-site doctor appointments
- Stocking or issuing medical supplies, such as dressing packs or treatment trays
- Measuring vital signs, including blood pressure, oxygen level, and temperature
- Explaining medical procedures and tests to patients and their families
- Dispensing medication as prescribed
- Changing dressings and bandages
- Setting up equipment such as oxygen tents, portable radiograph (X-ray) equipment, or IVs
- Assisting in minor medical procedures
Is CNA Considered a Nurse?
As their titles imply, certified nursing assistants “assist” nurses and other physicians rather than working as official nurses themselves. That said, CNAs are vital members of the nursing profession. For CNAs to practice, they must be under the supervision of registered nurses or licensed practical nurses. Because they are not legally responsible for the medical care of the patients, they must practice under those who are.
Where Do CNAs Work?
CNAs work in various healthcare settings, including general and specialty hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living establishments, and rehabilitation facilities. In some cases, their non-routine duties may be somewhat dependent on where they work.
The patient populations CNAs work with can also vary along with the work setting. CNAs in hospitals might work in wards with specific age groups, such as infants or young children. They may work in specialty hospitals with cancer patients or patients with other specific health conditions.
CNAs who work in nursing homes deal with elderly patients, while those who work in rehabilitation facilities may interface with patients of all ages with various ailments or diseases. CNAs in memory care facilities have the challenge of working with patients who have Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
As a CNA, you have an abundance of options. You can work in environments and with populations that you are interested in and most comfortable with.
Pros and Cons of Becoming a CNA
As with any career, there are advantages and disadvantages to pursuing a career as a CNA.
Pros of CNA Work
- Quick entrance: Some fast-track CNA programs take between four to six weeks to complete, making it easy for students who want to enter the field quickly. Rather than spending two years working toward an associate degree, CNAs can start earning money in less than two months.
- No prerequisites: Unlike some nursing degree programs that require learners to complete a set number of prerequisite classes before even being admitted, CNA programs require only a high school diploma or GED.
- Many job openings: The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that jobs for nursing assistants will grow by 8% between 2020-2030, leading to the creation of more than 115,000 new jobs — in addition to those that become available due to job turnover.
- Ability to test the waters: Individuals who think they may want to go into nursing but aren’t ready to commit to a longer program can try out work as a CNA to help them make an informed decision. As a CNA, you will regularly be exposed to nurses and the tasks they perform, which can help you determine whether you want to pursue that path.
- Make a difference: The work of a CNA can often feel thankless, but in reality, it greatly improves the lives of those they serve. Aside from performing daily tasks, CNAs get to know their patients and can serve as bright spots in their days—especially during challenging times when family can’t visit.
Cons of CNA Work
- Low wages: In 2020, CNAs earned median wages of $30,850—far below the median wage of $75,330 for registered nurses. Nursing professionals who want to earn better salaries will typically need to pursue additional education.
- Physicality: As the list of responsibilities highlighted above indicates, much of the work a CNA does involves heavy lifting, bending over or stretching, and being on your feet for long periods. Individuals with physical ailments or injuries may find these roles too strenuous.
- Demanding: Working with patients facing health challenges can be extremely rewarding but also stressful. Whether losing a patient or dealing with those who are chronically irritated or angry, CNAs often face the brunt of others’ pain, suffering, and confusion.
- Limited room for growth: Unless a practicing CNA wants to complete a bridge program or a degree, CNA positions offer little room for growth. Some may decide to move to administrative positions, but they’re often unable to move up the nursing ladder without heading back to school.
- Scheduling difficulties: Many CNAs report regularly being required to work weekends as part of their employment. Some also have rotating shifts, meaning they work different days or times each week. Individuals looking for consistency may find this challenging—especially after doing it for a while.
Is CNA a Good Career?
Working as a certified nursing assistant can offer great career benefits for individuals with a passion for helping others. In some cases, your work as a CNA may be less involved than others. According to one Reddit user who works at a nonprofit healthcare facility for the homeless, their patients are “typically independent, and I’m pretty much responsible for vitals, bed making, and handing out snacks.” They continue, “Occasionally we have patients with higher levels of care, but our patients are usually totally self sufficient.”
In other cases, especially nursing homes or long-term care facilities, CNAs spend much of their time helping with tasks such as showering, toileting, and eating. “I’m responsible for senior citizens, getting them up in the morning,” says CNA Ashley Taylor on her YouTube channel. “It is dirty work, you have to change them and get them ready for the day. If you’re good with kids, this job is no different besides the age, honestly.”
Some CNAs know they want to work in hospital settings but need to gain experience elsewhere first if they’re straight out of training. “I knew I wanted to work at a hospital but coming straight out of the CNA program and getting my CNA license, I knew that hospitals probably wouldn’t hire someone with no experience,” says YouTube vlogger Rachel. “I knew that I needed to work at a nursing home or somewhere like that to get experience.”
What Makes a Great CNA?
CNAs are on the frontlines of providing basic patient care, making patients feel comfortable and calm, and seeing that their needs are met. To do these tasks well, CNAs need to possess a wide variety of skills and traits.
CNAs must be reliable and responsible to complete the many tasks required to care for patients. Failing to be dependable as a CNA can have dire consequences for those who cannot care for themselves.
Providing an understanding ear for your patient and caring about their needs is a key part of the job. Many of these patients can feel quite vulnerable having someone else help them perform daily living tasks.
You might work with people whose ages, ethnicities, or lifestyles are different from your own. Being able to put yourself in their shoes will go a long way in providing empathetic care.
Ability to Work in a Team
As a CNA, you will interface with many different people throughout your shifts. In addition to supporting patients with their needs and answering questions from families, you will also communicate with nurses, doctors, and other professionals to ensure patients receive the care they need.
CNAs can often find themselves in stressful situations. From helping a patient with dementia who can become disoriented and lash out to carefully turning a patient on a ventilator, being able to manage your stress and stay calm will help everyone—including your patients.
It’s not always easy to work with people who are hurting, scared, or frustrated about their inability to do the things they used to do. Some patients can be demanding, irritable, stubborn, and otherwise trying. Being patient and realizing the cause of these behaviors will help you deal more effectively with patients and their families.
Do you enjoy talking with others? Can you communicate clearly and effectively? Effective communication is an important requirement for CNAs. You will be communicating with various people, including patients, family members, nurses, doctors, and other healthcare staff. Being able to relay information in a way that is understandable and useful is a must.
While you don’t have to be a super athlete to be a CNA, keep in mind that the job of a CNA is not a sedentary one. You will be doing a lot of walking, and you may be lifting, moving, or turning patients.
Lack of Squeamishness
Your work with patients will involve dealing with personal bodily functions, as well as blood and injuries. If you are at all squeamish, being a CNA is probably not the career for you.
What to Expect as a CNA
In truth, CNAs can experience substantially different workdays based on where they work, the type of patients they care for, and their work hours. For example, a CNA working nights and weekends in a nursing home typically has a different experience than working three 12-hour shifts per week in a neonatal unit.
CNAs typically work shifts lasting eight or 12 hours, with those taking the 12-hour shifts getting an extra day off. Eight-hour shifts usually last from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., or 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. Most jobs consist of 32-40 hours per week, and many positions require CNAs to work at least one weekend shift every month.
FAQs About Certified Nursing Assistant Jobs
If you’re thinking about becoming a CNA, you may still have some questions about the career. There are some of the most frequently asked questions about the CNA profession.
How Much Do CNAs Make?
As of May 2020, nursing assistants earned average annual salaries of $32,050. Those in the top 10% of earners received an average of $42,110, while those in the bottom 10% earned just $22,750. Salaries for CNAs can vary substantially, so individuals considering this path should research and make sure typical earnings meet their needs.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Certified Nursing Assistant?
Becoming a certified nursing assistant can take varying lengths of time, from four weeks to three months, depending on specific programs and student schedules. Those who want to enter the field as quickly as possible can find accelerated programs that take just a few weeks to complete, while students with busier schedules may prefer a longer part-time option. Look into several different programs to find the one that meets your needs.
Is CNA the Same as Medical Assistant?
Both CNAs and medical assistants operate in healthcare support roles, but their training requirements and responsibilities differ. CNAs spend their days providing direct patient care, including many of the responsibilities outlined throughout this guide.
Medical assistants straddle the line between administrative and clinical tasks. Part of the day, they may answer phones, schedule patient appointments, or organize filing systems. At other times they may administer shots and medication, assist physicians during exams, or take vital signs.
Is Nursing Assistant the Same as a CNA?
While some nursing assistant positions don’t require certification, those jobs may not involve the medical care responsibilities that CNAs typically have. Individuals who plan on completing further education at some point to become an LPN, RN, or other nursing professional should make sure they become certified. Earning this qualification will also help you stand out from other candidates during the job interview process.
Is CNA a Degree?
CNA is not a degree but rather a certification. Because it takes only a few weeks to months to become a CNA, these training programs are much shorter than nursing degree programs. That said, nursing assistants who decide they want to continue on the CNA career path can pursue a degree.
How Do I Get My CNA Certification?
The first step to receiving CNA certification is to complete a certified nursing training program. Many state boards of nursing provide a list of approved programs to help students pick a reputable option.
After completing all requirements, graduates must take the CNA certification exam administered by their state and receive a passing grade. They can then apply for licensure. To maintain licensure, CNAs must follow continuing education hour requirements set by their state board of nursing.
What Else Do You Need to Know?
Now that you’ve gotten an overview of what the job of the CNA involves, there are other things you probably want to know about the career as well. What is the outlook for CNAs? How much can I earn? How do I become a CNA? You can find answers to these questions by checking out other pages on PremierNursingAcademy.com: