Learn About Certified Nursing Assistants (CNA)

Learn what a Certified Nursing Assistant does and find out if this is the career field for you.

The Basics

What you'll do: Working closely with patients, you are responsible for basic care services such as bathing, grooming and feeding patients, assisting nurses with medical equipment, and checking patient vital signs. CNAs give patients important social and emotional support and also provide vital information on patient conditions to nurses.

Where you'll work: Hospitals, nursing care facilities, community care facilities for the elderly

Degree you'll need: High school diploma or GED and completion of a 6-to-12 week CNA certificate program

Median annual salary: $24,420*

Who Are Certified Nursing Assistants?

certified nursing assistant

A certified nursing assistant (CNA) job puts you on the front lines of patient care. Nursing assistants are vital to daily operations in hospitals and nursing care facilities. Your compassion and skill in patient care will help minimize the stress of those who are sick or unable to care for themselves.

Certified nursing assistants, sometimes called nurses' aides, orderlies, patient care technicians, and home health aides, work under the supervision of a nurse to help patients with daily living tasks.

Role of a CNA

The role of a CNA is to assist patients with everyday tasks such as eating, bathing and dressing. Many CNAs develop close bonds with their patients because they spend a significant amount of time together.

As a CNA, you'll rarely have two days that are completely alike. Your responsibilities will depend on the time of your shift and the type of facility you work in. For example, if you work a night shift in a hospital, you'll get an update from the day shift RN when you arrive at work. You'll take vital signs and ensure patients have what they need for the night. Your nights won't necessarily be quiet, however. You'll answer call lights, empty catheters, help patients who may be going in for surgery and provide general support to patients who are upset or uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, the role of CNA during a day shift will include preparing patients for the day ahead; washing, dressing and feeding breakfast will be some of the first tasks of the morning. As a CNA, you'll need to be organized and efficient since you'll often be managing multiple patients at once. For instance, as breakfast is going on, you may be called to change bedsheets.

CNAs not only offer support to their patients, but they help RNs as well. You'll maintain charts and provide reports to the incoming shift. Nurses may also ask you to round up certain medical supplies, admit new patients or prepare a room.

CNAs perform many of the same tasks in a nursing home, but there are a few differences. In a hospital, patients will have meals brought to them whereas nursing home patients may need assistance to the dining room. You'll answer call lights throughout the day or night and help patients get comfortable in their room or move about the facility. Depending on the nursing home, you may be assigned to a certain hall or area.

Similar Health Care Roles

Not all states use "certified nursing assistant" as a job title. Depending on your location, you may be called "nursing assistant" or "nursing aide."

CNA roles are entry-level and while some of their tasks are similar to those of medical assistants or orderlies, you'll have more responsibility in this job. CNAs provide medical treatment to patients whereas orderlies are not permitted to do so. Instead, they clean equipment and rooms and transport patients. A medical assistant, like a CNA, has more interaction with patients, such as taking vital signs. However, their role includes more clerical and administrative work, such as booking appointments and collecting a patient's personal information.

According to ONET, here's what you can expect as a CNA in the workplace.

  • 51 percent of CNAs say they spend time walking and running "continually or almost continually."
  • 71 percent of CNAs deem working with a team "extremely important."
  • 74 precent of CNAs said they have "constant contact with others."

Because of the regular interaction with patients and other medical staff, CNAs need to be dependable, cooperative and able to cope with stressful situations on a regular basis.

CNA Pay and Benefits

CNA pay and benefits will depend on where you work, but the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2014-15 Occupational Outlook Handbook lists the annual median salary for CNAs as $24,400. The lowest 10 percent earn less than $18,300, but the top 10 percent earn $35,330.

It's important to note that many CNAs are paid on an hourly basis so you may have an opportunity to pick up more hours to fill in for other CNAs who are using sick or vacation time.

Your geographic location is also a factor in how much you can make as a certified nursing assistant. According to the BLS, the median annual wages in the top-paying states are:

  • Alaska: $37,180
  • Nevada: $33,000
  • New York: $32,470
  • Connecticut: $31,940
  • District of Columbia: $30,940

Although CNA pay and benefits may not be robust, there are plenty of benefits to becoming a certified nursing assistant. Not only will you get the fulfillment of knowing you're helping others feel better, but it can also be a solid stepping stone in your nursing career. If you decide to head back to school to become an RN, some programs will give you credit for CNA work experience.

How Do I Become a CNA?

If you're striving to become a CNA, there's good news. The BLS predicts faster than average job growth through 2022. Specifically, employment is supposed to increase by 21 percent. The national average is 11 percent.

To become a CNA, you'll need a high school diploma or GED, plus nursing assistant training. You can find these programs at community colleges, trade schools and medical facilities. Before enrolling, be sure the program is approved by your state's nursing board.

Once you've completed your coursework, you'll need to take a state exam. You'll be tested on your basic nursing knowledge and skills. Aspiring CNAs will be expected to correctly answer questions about daily living activities, patient/client rights, communication, legal and ethical behavior and working as a health care team member, among other topics.

If you're concerned about the content of a CNA exam, you can find study preparation materials online. Here are a few sample questions:

  • How should a nursing assistant obtain the most accurate weight of a patient?
  • Who can you share a patient's personal information with?
  • What are the best ways to show a patient you are listening?

Education & Certification

You can complete your certified nursing assistant program in a very short period of time. In addition to a high school diploma or GED, you'll need to complete a 6-to-12 week CNA certificate program at a community college or medical facility.

Classroom instruction in a certified nursing assistant program generally includes the following:

  • Basic nursing skills
  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Nutrition
  • Infection control

Students also gain plenty of hands-on-experience during clinical activities.

Regulations on nursing assistant certification vary from state-to-state. However, most CNA programs offer a certification exam. The National Association for Home Care offers national certification for home health aides.

It's not uncommon for CNAs to advance their career by going back to school. If you want to become a registered nurse, you can earn an associate's or bachelor's degree. The former takes about two years to complete, but there are CNA-to-RN bridge programs available. This allows nursing students to complete their schooling in less than two years. Just keep in mind that an RN, BSN tends to open more doors for an advancement and opportunity in a nursing career.

CNA Licensure

To earn CNA licensure, you'll need to pass a state-issued competency exam. You'll complete a multiple choice portion of the test and in most cases, you'll need to demonstrate certain skills in a clinical setting.

In order to keep your CNA licensure active, most states require that CNAs complete 48 hours of continuing education every two years. Your state board can provide you with the most up-to-date information on licensing requirements.

When your license is up for renewal, check with your employer about continuing education subsidization. Many places will cover the cost of classes for their employees.

Start Your CNA Career

If you're ready to take the first steps toward a certified nursing assistant job, learn about your education options. Explore certified nursing assistant schools in your area, and start your career on the right foot.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014-15 Occupational Outlook Handbook; Nursing Assistants and Orderlies.

*The salary information listed is based on a national average, unless noted. Actual salaries may vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience and a variety of other factors. National long-term projections of employment growth may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.