Medical Assistant vs. Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA): What’s the Difference?

Medical assistants and certified nursing assistants are rewarding jobs in the healthcare industry. Find out how you can get started in these career paths.
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  • Medical assistant jobs are growing faster than the national average.
  • Clinical experience can help prepare you for a job as a CNA.
  • Both jobs can be stressful, with long, demanding hours.
  • Requirements for each position can vary by state.

Did you know that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that there are more than 700,000 medical assistants nationwide and more than 1 million nursing assistants? And the projected need for these professionals is continuing to grow.

Thanks to these critical jobs, patients receive proper medication, X-rays, and wound care in the hospital. These professionals also work in nursing homes, making sure that residents get the help they need to perform daily activities. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Ready to Start Your Journey?

If this sounds like a field you'd be interested in, you can finish your training in just a few months and get started on one of these careers in healthcare.

What's the Difference Between Medical Assistants and CNAs?

Medical assistants (MAs) and certified nursing assistants (CNAs) both assist with patient care — just in different ways.

Medical assistants work in clinics or outpatient settings, assisting with patient intake information, scheduling, and other clerical work. MAs may administer injections or medications as directed by a physician. While it is possible to become certified, not all states require MAs to earn certification or a degree.

CNAs work under the supervision of a registered nurse and assist patients with their daily care. CNAs typically have more hands-on duties than MAs. But unless CNAs earn more certifications, they do not administer medications.

An important note: Federal law requires CNAs working in nursing homes to complete training and to be listed on the state nursing registry.

Popular Online Medical Assisting Programs

Medical Assistant Pros and Cons


  • Not all states require certification or a degree.
  • They are in high demand with a higher-than-average job growth rate.
  • There's a lot of potential for career advancement.


  • You may need to work all hours of the day.
  • The salary starts below the national average, as per the BLS.
  • At times, the work can be stressful.

CNA Pros and Cons


  • Training takes less than a year.
  • It's a great starting point for a nursing career.
  • The role can have a flexible work schedule.


  • The work can be stressful and demanding.
  • The starting salary is below the national average.
  • You may be asked to work long hours.

What Are the Requirements to Become a Medical Assistant?

Qualifications to become a medical assistant vary from state to state. Basic requirements include having a high school or GED diploma and completing a medical assistant program.

You can choose to meet your requirements by earning an associate in medical assisting degree and then gaining experience through an externship.

It can also be useful to get an official certification, which can increase your earning potential. The American Association of Medical Assistants offers one of the top certifications in the industry.

Soft skills are also a part of being a medical assistant. "[You need] good communication, empathy, compassion, [and] critical thinking skills," said Jimeela Davis, a certified medical assistant at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

What Are the Requirements to Become a CNA?

A high school or GED diploma and completion of a nursing assistant program are the first steps to becoming a CNA.

First, make sure your program is approved for the state where you want to practice. Then, you'll need to work a certain number of hours to gain experience. Typically, you'll work with a registered nurse or another CNA who can provide you with guidance and instruction.

Finally, you can take the state-approved CNA certification exam and begin your career.

But along with getting an education, you should have a desire and passion for helping people. "A CNA focuses on the…well being of the patients while supporting the nurses," explained Rehanna Macklin, who worked as a CNA for 25 years.

Medical Assistant vs. CNA: Salary Comparison

According to the BLS, medical assistants made a median annual salary of $37,190 in May 2021. Plus, the BLS projects medical assistant roles to grow by 16% from 2021-2031 — much higher than the national average of 5%.

The BLS reports that certified nursing assistants earned a slightly lower salary of $30,290 each year as of May 2021. And their projected job growth of 5% from 2021-2031 is on par with the projected job growth for all jobs nationwide.

Medical Assistant vs. CNA Salary

Medical Assistant Source: Payscale, Feb. 2023
CNA Source: Payscale, Feb. 2023

Medical Assistant vs. CNA: Which Is Right for Me?

Your career goals determine whether becoming a clinical medical assistant vs. a CNA is right for you. While both CNAs and medical assistants work in medicine, each has different roles and expectations.

If you are interested in nursing and want to provide direct patient care, becoming a CNA may be the right role for you. Many licensed and registered nurses begin their careers as CNAs.

However, if you want to build a career in healthcare administration, becoming a medical assistant is a great first step. Medical assistant jobs tend to pay more, but CNA training programs are often shorter.

Plus, both medical assistants and CNAs have the option of returning to school to further their education.

While both careers are similar in many ways, they open doors to different opportunities. Knowing your overall goals can help point you in the right direction.

"Discover [your] strengths and try to align them with the tasks or responsibilities for each role," advised Alicia Samuel, The Medical Assistant Expert AAS, CCMA.

"Reflecting on [your] career goals, [your] strengths, and what aligns with a specific role's responsibilities will help anyone choose the best career path," Samuel said.

Frequently Asked Questions About Medical Assistants vs. CNAs

Which is better, medical assistant or CNA?

When considering becoming a medical assistant or a CNA, remember that one role is not better than the other. Medical assistants earn more, but you can often finish a CNA training program faster. While you can earn a medical assisting certification, not all states require it to work.

If you are not interested in giving personal care, becoming a medical assistant may be better for you. Medical assistants help doctors in a clinical setting, taking samples for lab work and performing clerical duties.

"It's not a matter of which one is better; it's a matter [of] whatever your life is aligned for. For me personally, my passion is to work in an ambulatory setting," said Niambi Lavender, a certified medical assistant at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

What do you need to do as a medical assistant to become a CNA?

While some of the skills you learn as a medical assistant are helpful, you must complete an accredited CNA training program and become certified in your state to work as a CNA. Medical assistant training and CNA training are different as these jobs fulfill different healthcare roles.

Does a certified medical assistant get paid as much as a CNA?

According to the BLS, medical assistants are typically paid more than CNAs. Both have an average salary range between $30,000-$40,000. However, the medical assistant field is projected to see more significant growth. The BLS projects jobs for this role to grow 16% from 2021-2031, well above the national average. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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