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

Unsure whether to pursue a job as a medical assistant vs. CNA? Learn the difference between these two careers and education requirements.

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by Emily Gillespie-Lord

Updated September 20, 2022

Reviewed by Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC

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Medical Assistant vs. Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA): What’s the Difference?
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Medical assistants and certified nursing assistants offer assistance and support in the healthcare field. There is a growing demand for both of these positions.

Medical assistants help physicians with patient exams by taking vitals, recording medical histories, giving injections, scheduling appointments, and submitting prescription information. They also perform other clerical duties within a clinic or hospital setting.

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CNAs work in hospitals, long-term care facilities, and nursing homes. They work under the supervision of a licensed practical nurse (LPN) or registered nurse (RN). They interact with patients and provide basic daily care services such as bathing, dressing, eating, and going to the bathroom. CNAs also monitor patients, keep track of their vital signs, and assist with daily activities.

What's the Difference Between Medical Assistants and CNAs?

MAs and CNAs both assist with patient care but 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 an RN and assist patients in their daily care. CNAs typically have more hands-on duties than MAs. Unless CNAs earn more certifications, they do not administer medications. Federal law requires CNAs working in nursing homes to complete training and be listed on the state nursing registry.

Medical Assistant Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Not all states require certification or a degree
  • In high demand with a higher than average job growth rate
  • Opportunity for career advancement

Cons

  • Can work all hours of the day
  • Pay is not high
  • Can be stressful

CNA Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Training takes less than a year
  • Great starting point for a nursing career
  • Flexible work schedule

Cons

  • Can be stressful and demanding
  • Salary is not that high
  • Work long hours

What Degree Do I Need to Work as a Medical Assistant?

Education requirements for medical assistants vary depending on the state. In some states, you can begin working after earning your high school diploma or GED certificate, while others require you to earn a medical assisting degree and become certified.

Many trade schools and community colleges offer medical assistant programs. The time to graduate depends on the program but generally ranges from a few weeks to a few years. Earning an associate degree in medical assisting takes about two years. Graduates are qualified to assist physicians in clinic settings.

What Degree Do I Need to Work as a CNA?

You typically do not need a nurse assisting degree to work as a CNA. By federal law, you must complete 75 hours of CNA training and be listed on your state's nurse aide registry to work in a long-term care facility. States have specific rules regarding additional training hours, certification renewal, and continuing education.

CNA program length depends on the school. Most programs take at least a few weeks to one year. Training is available at trade schools, community colleges, or on-the-job at approved medical facilities. Graduates are qualified to assist registered nurses in long-term care facilities, nursing homes, and hospitals.

Career and Salary Outlook for Medical Assistants and CNAs

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual pay for medical assistants is $45,760 per year. CNAs earned a median annual wage of $30,310.

The BLS projects medical assistant jobs to grow 18% from 2020 to 2030, much faster than all other occupations. Overall employment of CNAs is projected to grow 8% from 2020 to 2030, which is average.

With the baby boomer generation growing older, medical assistants and CNAs are in high demand. Medical assistants work in outpatient and clinic settings, while CNAs work directly with patients in long-term care facilities, nursing homes, and hospitals.

Medical Assistant vs. CNA Salary

Source: Payscale

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

Your career goals determine whether becoming a medical assistant vs. 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.

Both medical assistants and CNAs have the option of returning to school to further their education.

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 CNA training programs are often shorter. While earning a medical assisting certification is possible, not all states require it.

Everyone has different career goals and skills. Working as a CNA might be "better" if you are interested in nursing. CNAs work directly with patients and assist in their day-to-day care, helping them to eat, bathe, dress, and go to the bathroom.

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.

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. CNA training and medical assisting training is different as these jobs fulfill different healthcare roles.

Medical assistants work with patients by recording their information, preparing rooms, and even giving injections, but they do not have the training for long-term or daily patient care. These skills can only be learned in a state-approved training program.

How much do medical assistants make?

Medical assistants make a little more than CNAs. An entry-level medical assistant with less than a year of experience can expect to earn $32,750 per year. A medical assistant with 20 or more years of experience can earn more than $40,800 annually.

Where you work also affects your pay. Medical assistants working at chiropractic clinics earn a median annual wage of $30,100 per year, while those who work at outpatient care centers earn $38,270, reports the BLS.

How much do CNAs make?

CNAs earn less than medical assistants. A CNA with less than one year of experience can expect to earn $25,800 per year. A CNA with 20 or more years of experience can earn a higher salary of $32,750 annually.

Where you work as a CNA also impacts your pay. The BLS reports CNAs working in home health services can earn a median annual salary of $29,280 per year, while those who work in government facilities earn $37,310.

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

A medical assistant earns more than a CNA. With 20 years of experience, medical assistant pay rises from $32,750 per year to $40,800. CNA pay starts at $25,800 annually and increases to $32,750 after 20 or more years of experience.

Both medical assistants and CNAs can return to school and earn higher levels of education to pursue higher salaries. Many registered nurses begin their careers as CNAs. Working as a medical assistant can serve as experience in healthcare administration.

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