Medical Assistant vs. CNA

Medical Assistant vs. CNA

By Bethanny Parker

Published on July 27, 2021

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Reviewed by Brandy Gleason MSN, MHA, BC-NC


Do you want to work in the medical field without having to get a two-year or four-year degree? Entry-level positions such as medical assistant and certified nursing assistant (CNA) allow individuals to gain experience in the medical field after only a few months or years of training and education.

In many cases, medical assistants and CNAs later pursue further education in order to advance their careers. They may become licensed practical nurses (LPNs), registered nurses (RNs), or physician assistants after earning more advanced degrees.

Starting out as a medical assistant or CNA allows workers to earn a salary and help support their families while they continue their education. Many schools offer evening, weekend, and online courses that make it easier to juggle work and school.

While the career path for CNAs typically involves transitioning to an LPN or RN position, medical assistants often pursue careers outside of nursing, such as healthcare management or health information management. Potential job titles include healthcare administrator, physician practice manager, patient finance manager, and clinical data specialist.

How Are Medical Assistants vs. CNAs Different?

Medical assistants and CNAs share some job responsibilities, such as caring for wounds and assisting with medical procedures. However, when looking at medical assistant vs. CNA positions, there are several differences, starting with the training required to land the job.

Medical assistants typically complete a certificate or associate program in medical assisting to prepare for the job. However, some medical assistants enter the workforce with only a high school diploma, then learn on the job. Medical assistant training programs can take anywhere from nine months to two years to complete.

CNAs must complete a state-approved program to be eligible to work. Many high schools, community colleges, and healthcare organizations offer CNA programs. Typically, applicants to a CNA program must be at least 18 years of age and be up-to-date on all vaccinations. Most CNA certification programs take between four and 12 weeks to complete.

When it comes to job responsibilities, medical assistants help with both administrative tasks and patient care, while CNAs focus primarily on caring for patients. Job responsibilities for medical assistants include taking medical histories, preparing patients for examinations, and assisting the doctor during exams. Medical assistants also welcome patients, schedule appointments, and fill out insurance forms.

Job responsibilities for CNAs include grooming and bathing patients, cleaning rooms and changing bed linens, gathering medical supplies, and answering patient calls. CNAs help ensure that patients receive the level of care they require during a hospital stay. CNAs check vital signs, feed patients, and document how much food and liquid they consume.

To become a CNA, you must complete a CNA training program and pass your state's certification test, which consists of two parts: written and practical. The requirements for becoming a CNA may vary from one state to another. While it is possible to become a certified medical assistant, most states do not require certification for medical assistants.

Medical assistants and CNAs often have different work environments. More than half of all medical assistants (57%) work in physicians' offices, 15% work in hospitals, 8% in outpatient care centers, and 4% in chiropractors' offices.

On the other hand, 37% of CNAs work in nursing care facilities, 27% in hospitals, 11% in continuing care and assisted living facilities for the elderly, 5% in home healthcare services, and 4% in government.

How Does the Salary Differ for Medical Assistants vs. CNAs?

When looking at medical assistant vs. CNA salary, medical assistants make slightly more. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for medical assistants in 2020 was $35,850 while the median salary for nursing assistants was $30,830 per year.

The salary for medical assistants and CNAs varies depending on the type of employer. Medical assistants who worked at outpatient care centers earned a median salary of $38,860 in 2020, while those who worked in physicians' offices earned a median salary of $35,870.

Among CNAs, those who worked for the government earned the highest median pay ($37,240) in 2020, followed by those who worked at hospitals ($32,160) and those who worked in nursing care facilities ($30,120).

Based on salary alone, it might seem better to pursue a career as a medical assistant rather than a CNA. However, you should consider your future career goals when deciding which path to take. If you seek a future in nursing, a CNA position might look better on your resume than a medical assistant position, which involves more administrative work and not as much patient care.

How Does the Career Outlook Differ for Medical Assistants vs. CNAs?

According to the BLS, the number of jobs for both medical assistants and CNAs is expected to grow much faster than average from 2019-2029. For medical assistants, the BLS projects 19% job growth, leading to the employment of over 139,000 more medical assistants. By comparison, the BLS projects 14% job growth for other healthcare support occupations and an average growth of 4% across all occupations.

The BLS expects physicians to hire more medical assistants to help serve aging baby boomers in the coming years. These assistants perform routine clinical and administrative duties, giving physicians more time to see more patients.

The job outlook for CNAs is not as positive as for medical assistants, but the occupation is still likely to grow. The BLS projects an 8% growth in nursing assistant jobs from 2019-2029, which would result in approximately 117,000 more nursing assistants. The aging baby boomer population will likely increase the demand for CNAs who care for patients in residential care facilities and nursing homes.

Frequently Asked Questions About Medical Assistants and CNAs

Which is better, medical assistant or CNA?

If you're interested in earning the highest possible salary, becoming a medical assistant makes more sense. However, CNA training programs tend to be shorter, so you could start working sooner. You should also consider your future career goals. If you want a career in healthcare administration, becoming a medical assistant may look better on your resume. However, if you want to pursue a career in nursing, CNA experience may be preferred.

What skills should a medical assistant have?

Medical assistants need to know how to perform both clinical and administrative duties. Some of the administrative skills required include updating patient records, scheduling appointments, and filling out insurance forms. They also need the ability to work with people and to provide exceptional customer service. Clinical duties may include taking medical histories, running basic laboratory tests, administering medications and vaccinations, and assisting during examinations.

Are there online medical assistant certification programs?

Although there are online medical assisting programs, candidates must take the medical assistant certification test in person. The American Association of Medical Assistants has a certification exam you can take after completing your medical assisting program. If you want to become a certified medical assistant, you must make sure your program is accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). However, not all medical assistants need certification.

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Reviewed by:

As an assistant professor of nursing and entrepreneur with nearly twenty years of varied nursing experience, Brandy Gleason teaches within a prelicensure nursing program and coaches students. Brandy brings additional expertise as a bedside nurse and leader, having held roles at the managerial and senior leadership levels. Her passion and area of research centers around coaching nurses and nursing students to build resilience and avoid burnout. Brandy is an avid change agent when it comes to creating environments that contribute to the wellbeing of students.


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