Home » Blog » Medical Assistant vs. CNA

What’s the Difference Between a Medical Assistant and a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)?

Medical assistant and certified nursing assistant titles sound similar, but these jobs have very different duties, educational requirements, and salaries.

two medical professionals discussing a chart
Home » Blog » Medical Assistant vs. CNA
stephanie behring

Written and reported by:
By Stephanie Behring
Contributing Writer

People looking to join the healthcare field without committing to earning an advanced degree might find both medical assistant (MA) and certified nursing assistant (CNA) jobs to be appealing options. It’s easy to get these two similar-sounding roles confused. At first glance, it can seem like these jobs have a lot of overlap. After all, both MAs and CNAs work in fast-paced medical facilities and provide patient care.

So you might be surprised to learn there are actually major differences between the two jobs. One reason for the difference is the function of each role. Both CNAs and medical assistants take on support roles that help their healthcare facilities run smoothly, but they’re supporting different healthcare professionals.

CNAs support and assist nurses while medical assistants support and assist doctors. This means CNAs take on patient care tasks like showering, dressing, and eating. Medical assistants take on tasks that help doctors conduct exams, such as preparing exam rooms or administering vaccines.

CNAs assist nurses, while medical assistants assist doctors.

Roles and Responsibilities

“The role of the medical assistant and CNA is vastly different from the start,” says Catherine Burger, MSOL, RN, NEA-BC. Berger is a nurse educator and nurse leader who has worked in numerous healthcare facilities, including over a decade of leadership roles with Kaiser Permanente.

“The CNA is trained for direct, hands-on patient care in an inpatient or skilled nursing facility. Registered nurses and licensed practical nurses oversee and delegate their daily tasks, which include bathing, feeding, ambulating, and measuring/recording vital signs.”

Conversely, the role of a medical assistant is to support doctors in the outpatient setting. Medical assistants are often the liaison between the doctor and the patient and provide communications between the two. “MA staff are able to administer medications, give breathing treatments, collect and record vital signs, provide immunizations, and, in many states, assist with minor procedures in the office,” says Burger.

Tasks of a CNA

  • Helping patients with the activities of daily living (ADLs), such as bathing, dressing, eating, toileting, and moving
  • Lifting or repositioning patients who are unable to move
  • Serving meals and helping feed patients who need assistance eating
  • Changing linens and making sure rooms are clean and well-stocked
  • Organizing supplies
  • Observing patients for changes in mood, skin quality, ability, and more so that these changes can be reported to nursing staff
  • Communicating with family members, nurses, and other healthcare staff about the patients
  • Providing care and companionship to patients
  • Taking on other duties as assigned and overseen by nurses

Exact CNA duties depend on the facility and can even change from day to day. A CNA needs to be prepared to jump into tasks and change course if the day requires it. For example, sometimes it is unsafe for a patient to be left alone. In this case, a CNA might be pulled from their normal tasks and assigned to provide one-on-one care and monitoring for that patient during their entire shift.

Tasks of a Medical Assistant

  • Updating patient medical records
  • Preparing exam rooms
  • Providing patient education
  • Assisting doctors with minor procedures
  • Administering medications
  • Administering vaccines
  • Collecting blood samples
  • Arranging for lab work, X-rays, and tests as ordered by the doctor
  • Taking on other duties as assigned and overseen by the doctor

Some medical assistants also take on administrative tasks like answering phones, scheduling appointments, and keeping track of invoices. This is often the case in smaller physician practices that don’t have professionals such as medical administrative assistants or medical receptionists on staff. In these environments, the medical assistant will take on those tasks as well as their clinical duties.

Tasks CMAs and Medical Assistants Share

  • Taking and recording vital signs
  • Supporting other healthcare staff

The tasks of both CNAs and medical assistants can vary by their employer, so there might be other shared tasks depending on the setting. For example, in some facilities, both CNAs and MAs are responsible for checking on supplies and making note of anything that is running low.

Where Do They Work?

The settings in which CNAs and medical assistants find work are often very different. CNAs always assist nurses, so they work in environments with large nursing staffs such as hospitals. Conversely, medical assistants provide assistance to doctors, so they work in environments where doctors are the primary care providers, such as private physicians’ offices.

“Medical assistants are generally found in outpatient settings and nursing assistants generally are found working in inpatient or long-term care settings,” explains Jenna Liphart Rhoads, PhD., RN, CNE, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay.

Common workplaces for CNAs:

  • Hospitals
  • Skilled nursing facilities
  • Assisted living facilities
  • Home healthcare agencies

Common workplaces for medical assistants:

  • Private physical offices
  • Outpatient care centers
  • Hospitals
  • Multi-physician medical practices
  • Chiropractic offices

Of course, you can always look beyond common employers to find unique and challenging work settings. For CNAs, this could mean tackling a role at an adult day services facility, correctional facility, urgent care center, or traveling nurse agency; all have a need for CNAs. Medical assistants may find jobs at specialty clinics such as weight loss or sleep clinics, insurance companies, community clinics, or medical labs.

The History of CNAs and Medical Assistants

While there have always been support professionals working in medical settings, these rules were loose and unorganized until the 20th century. The role of the CNA was designated first and traces its roots back to the military hospitals of World War I, where the American Red Cross created the volunteer nurse aide service role. The medical assistant role wasn’t officially recognized until 1955, when the Kansas Medical Assistant Society was formed. The Society grew to become today’s American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA).

What Education Do I Need?

You can jump into a medical career fast as either a CNA or a medical assistant. While some formal training is required, you don’t need to spend years in school or earn an advanced degree. That makes both CNA and medical assistant roles a great way to get started in healthcare.

CNAs need to complete a training program approved by their state. These programs are offered at community colleges, hospitals, technical schools, and large nursing facilities. CNA programs typically take six to 12 weeks to complete. They include hands-on learning and classroom instruction. You’ll get the educational foundation you need to work as a CNA and learn the skills you’ll need to help care for patients.

CNA vs MA

EducationTime to Complete
CNA:Approved program (varies by state)Six to 12 weeks
Medical Assistant:Certificate, diploma, or associate degreeNine months to two years

Medical assistants have a few options when it comes to education. They can choose to complete a medical assistant certificate or diploma program. These programs generally take between nine months and a year. They cover all the basic skills and knowledge you need to succeed as a medical assistant.

Medical assistants can also choose a more advanced education in their field and earn an associate degree. Associate degree programs for medical assistants take about two years to complete. They’ll allow you to learn the skills you need for a medical assistant career and include courses in general education subjects.

Do I Need to Be Licensed or Certified?

Neither CNAs nor medical assistants need to be licensed. However, there are certification requirements. In fact, the title of “Certified Nursing Assistant” can only be used by nursing assistants who’ve earned certification in their state.

Each state has its own standards and requirements for nursing assistant certification. They generally include taking a state-approved training program and nursing assistant exam and passing a criminal background check.

CNAs must be certified to practice.

You’ll be added to your state’s nursing assistant registry after you earn certification. You’ll need to take continuing education classes and renew your certification every few years as required by your state to stay active on the registry. Employers can check this registry to make sure you’re certified before hiring you.

Earning a certification as a medical assistant is optional, but highly recommended. Although states themselves don’t require any specific certifications for medical assistants, many employers will. There are two major credentials for MAs. You’ll need to meet educational requirements and take an exam to earn either credential.

Medical assistants aren’t required to be certified, but some employers prefer to hire MAs with credentials.

Medical assistants who’ve completed an accredited educational program can earn the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) credential from the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). Medical assistants who’ve earned their education from on-the-job training, the military, or a formal medical assistant program can all earn the Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) credential from American Medical Technologists (AMT).

Both CNAs and medical assistants can choose to take additional courses and earn voluntary specialty certification. These certifications aren’t degrees, but they do showcase your advanced knowledge in your field. This can make you stand out to employers. The exact certifications available to you will depend on your state and educational background.

Salaries

Medical assistants have more education and often take on more advanced clinical tasks than CNAs. The average salaries for each role reflect this. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), medical assistants earned a median salary of $35,850 in 2020, while CNAs earned a median salary of $30,830.

Your education, experience, and employer can all make a big impact on your salary, so there are times when CNAs will be able to earn more. For example, medical assistants who work at chiropractor’s offices earned a median salary of $31,470 while CNAs who worked for government agencies such as correctional facilities earned $37,240, according to the BLS.

However, as a general rule, medical assistants enjoy a higher salary than CNAs. This holds true in every state in the country. In some states, the difference is significant. In the District of Columbia, medical assistants earn an average of nearly $11,000 more than CNAs.

The right role for you depends on your skills and interests. For example, if you’re inserted in a fast-paced, hands-on job providing patient care, a CNA role might be a great fit. This role makes sense if you like large work environments and are a team player, since CNAs often work in major hospitals and nursing facilities. You’ll need to be able to work side-by-side with other CNAs, nurses, and other healthcare staff to care for patients.

CNA roles are also a good fit for people who are thinking about an LPN or RN role in the future. Working as a CNA can give you hands-on experience and help you decide if nursing is right for you. It’s not uncommon for people to work as CNAs while they complete their LPN or RN educational program.

It’s not uncommon for people to work as CNAs while they complete their LPN or RN educational program.

“Ideally, a person who is calm and caring, with a strong desire to help people and support a team, works well as a CNA,” Burger says.

“(CNAs should have) a love for working with people, moving around and being on their feet all day, a sense of humor, the ability to work as a team with others, and enjoy doing something a little different every day,” Rhoads adds.

Medical assistant roles are a great fit for people with excellent communication and organizational skills. They tend to work in physicians’ offices as part of small teams, so these roles are also great for people who like to work closely with just a few coworkers. A medical assistant role is also a great fit for people who are comfortable with technology since medical assistants are often responsible for entering data into electronic health records (EHR).

A medical assistant role is also a great fit for people who are comfortable with technology.

A medical assistant role can serve as a jumping-off point for other healthcare careers. You’ll get experience on both the office and the patient care side of healthcare. From there, you could get further education and sharpen your administrative skills to land a role like medical office manager or use your clinical skills to pursue a nursing degree.

“A person who is able to communicate well while multi-tasking through numerous duties and expectations will make a good medical assistant,” Burger says. “Clinicians rely heavily on their medical assistant to manage their practice and, oftentimes, billings. Many clinicians say that their medical assistant will make or break their day.”

Medical assistants should “enjoy working for people, enjoy routine, and enjoy performing some clerical work,” adds Rhodes.

Resources

If you’re having trouble deciding which certification to earn, remember that you can earn both. You’ll have to pay for and take two exams, but you’ll have the security of knowing you’ll always have the credential an employer is looking for. So, if you qualify for both the CMA and the RMA through your education, earning both is a great idea. 

CNAs can check out:

National Association of Health Care Assistants (NAHCA):

You’ll find continuing education, advocacy, and networking opportunities with NAHCA.

National Network of Career Nursing Assistants (NNCNA):

The NNCNA is a great spot to find career support and continuing education.

4YourCNA:

Check out this YouTube channel for refresher videos that can help you brush up on your skills.

Medical assistants can check out:

The American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA):

You can get certified, make connections, and stay on top of the news with this group.

American Registry of Medical Assistants (ARMA):

You can register as a medical assistant on this national register.

American Medical Technologists on Twitter:

Follow this account for the latest medical assisting news.
jenna rhoads

With professional insight from:
Jenna Liphart Rhoads Ph.D., RN, CNE
Assistant Nursing Professor, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay

catherine burger

With professional insight from:
Catherine Burger, MSOL, RN, NEA-BC
Nurse Educator