Group of medical professionals in a hallway

CNA vs. Patient Care Technician

How to Choose Between Two of the Best Entry-Level Health Careers

Group of medical professionals in a hallway

With so many different entry-level healthcare careers out there, it can be tough to know which one to pick, especially when so many medical industry jobs can seem quite similar. However, for people who love the idea of starting their new healthcare career as soon as possible, becoming a patient care technician (PCT) or a certified nursing assistant (CNA) are two of the most popular choices, as it’s possible to start work in either profession without spending multiple years in school.

But how do you know the difference between a PCT and a CNA in terms of what daily life on the job is like? How do you decide which career is the best choice for you? Continue reading to learn everything you need to know about the differences between a career as a PCT vs. a CNA, including details on the job duties, requirements, certifications, salaries, and long-term outlooks for both careers.

If you’re looking to dive even deeper into both careers, click here to read our comprehensive guides on how to become a patient care technician or how to become a nursing assistant.

CNA vs. PCT: Definition

What is a Certified Nursing Assistant?

Certified nursing assistants specialize in helping people who need a little extra assistance performing everyday tasks, moving around, and staying comfortable. They work under the direction of registered nurses and spend lots of time with the patients under their care. The scope of medical tasks CNAs can perform is quite limited, though for many people who prefer to focus on patient care’s social and emotional aspects, that suits them just fine.

What is a Patient Care Technician?

Patient care technicians also frequently work with people who need lots of supervision and assistance on a daily basis. Like CNAs, PCTs routinely help their patients with daily living tasks, though their scope of medical responsibility can be much broader. In many states, they’re authorized to perform tasks like drawing blood, dispensing medication, or operating more complex medical equipment.

CNA vs. PCT: Job Description

What Does a Certified Nursing Assistant Do?

CNAs play a major role in improving their patients’ quality of life. They provide assistance with everyday tasks like eating, bathing, dressing, and using the restroom. CNAs also help their patients move around safely and remain comfortable, as well as providing important social interaction. They also monitor basic medical essentials like blood pressure and heart rate, and provide updates to the attending nurse as necessary.

What Does a Patient Care Technician Do?

Patient care technicians can expect to perform many of the same functions as CNAs on a daily basis. However, they have more advanced medical training that also allows them to perform procedures like inserting catheters, removing stitches or staples, or operating more advanced medical monitoring equipment. Specific regulations for PCTs can vary by state, but in general, their level of training qualifies them to perform a broader range of tasks traditionally reserved for more advanced healthcare professionals like registered nurses.

CNA vs. PCT: Duties & Responsibilities

Certified Nursing Assistant Responsibilities

Some of the daily responsibilities of certified nursing assistants (CNAs) include:

  • Measuring patients’ vital signs like heart rate and blood pressure
  • Monitoring food intake and helping patients eat
  • Assisting patients with bathing or using the restroom
  • Helping patients get dressed, perform exercises, and move around safely
  • Responding to call signals from patients and generally keeping them comfortable

Patient Care Technician Responsibilities

In addition to many of the duties performed by CNAs, the daily responsibilities of patient care technicians frequently include more advanced medical functions, such as:

  • Administering certain medications to patients
  • Drawing blood from patients to be analyzed in medical labs
  • Inserting or removing certain types of catheters
  • Removing stitches or staples, changing dressings, and administering wound care
  • Operating more advanced medical equipment like electrocardiographs

Empty hospital beds

CNA vs. PCT: Work Environments

Where Do Certified Nursing Assistants Work?

Most certified nursing assistants work in hospitals or skilled nursing facilities, though you’ll also find CNAs working at retirement communities, home healthcare service companies, and even in some government jobs. Most CNAs work full-time, though part-time positions are also available. CNA shifts can be scheduled for just about any time of day, as certified nursing assistants work with patients who need plenty of help and supervision.

Where Do Patient Care Technicians Work?

Many patient care technicians work in the same types of facilities as certified nursing assistants—hospitals, nursing facilities, retirement communities, etc. However, due to their more extensive medical training, you’ll also find PCTs working in more facilities like kidney care clinics or other specialized treatment centers. While senior care facilities are still common workplaces for patient care technicians, many hospitals hire more PCTs to handle routine medical tasks, which can help free up registered nurses to handle other duties requiring RN-level medical training. PCTs usually work full-time hours, and just like CNAs, they may need to work shifts on nights, weekends, or holidays.

CNA vs. PCT: Education

Educational Requirements for Certified Nursing Assistants

What degree do you need to become a CNA?

Anyone with a high school diploma or GED can usually become a CNA. However, many states also require passing a background check before you’ll be allowed to enroll in a nursing assistant training program.

How long does it take to become a CNA?

Most CNA training programs can be completed in as little as four to eight weeks. It’s one of the fastest ways to start a new career in the healthcare industry, though if you hope to progress into higher-level nursing roles, you’ll need to continue your education at some point.

What do you learn in a CNA program?

During your CNA program, you’ll cover topics like safety and sterility best practices, how to communicate with patients, and the essentials about providing for their basic needs like cleanliness and personal care. You’ll learn about how to help people eat and drink safely, and how to assist them with exercise and general mobility. Your CNA training will also include the basics of measuring and recording vital signs and how to handle certain emergencies.

How do you get certified as a CNA?

After completing your CNA training program, you’ll need to complete a certification exam from the state in which you intend to practice. Most CNA exams include around 70 multiple-choice and reading-comprehension questions over the course of about two hours. CNA exams in many states also include a skills portion where you’ll be asked to demonstrate your competence in a handful of essential tasks you’ll be expected to perform on the job.

Educational Requirements for Patient Care Technicians

What degree do you need to become a PCT?

For most people, a career as a PCT is just as accessible as becoming a CNA. For example, to enroll in the patient care technician program at Brookline College, all you’ll need is a high school diploma or GED, plus passing both a background check and a Scholastic Level Exam.

How long does it take to become a PCT?

Earning your PCT diploma programs takes a little longer than a CNA training, as you’ll be receiving more extensive medical instruction that can potentially open up more job opportunities down the road. Traditionally, many allied health programs took a full year to complete, but with an accelerated diploma program, you could earn your PCT diploma in as few as 34 weeks.

Study area with books

What do you learn in a PCT program?

Your PCT education will include many of the same patient-care fundamentals you’ll cover in a CNA training. However, you’ll go much deeper into medical terminology, policies, and procedures, and receive a good deal more training in areas like phlebotomy and respiratory care. Your PCT program will also include more advanced instruction in physical and occupational therapy, as well as other hands-on skills like how to use an ECG machine.

At the end of your PCT program, you’ll need to complete what’s known as a practicum, where you’ll put your newfound skills to use working with real patients in a real healthcare environment. After all, there’s no substitute for hands-on experience when it comes to helping you stay calm and remember your training in potentially stressful situations.

How do you get certified as a PCT?

The most commonly accepted PCT certifications are issued by the National Center for Competency Testing and the National Healthcareer Association. Both of these certification exams from either organization will include around 100-125 multiple-choice questions, as well as a practical section where you’ll be tested on essential skills.

CNA vs. PCT: Salary

How Much Do CNAs Make?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary* for certified nursing assistants is about $32,000, which works out to be just above $15 per hour. Nursing assistants among the top 10% of earners can bring home salaries as high as $42,000 per year or more.

How Much Do PCTs Make?

According to salary* data from, patient care technicians across the United States earn an average annual income of over $46,000 per year, which works out to over $17 per hour. With experience, PCT salaries can reach even higher—patient care technicians that have worked in the field for 6 years or more can average yearly salaries of $52,000 and up.

CNA vs. PCT: Job Outlook

CNA Job Outlook

The BLS projects that demand for CNAs will continue to remain steady, as they estimate the overall employment of certified nursing assistants will increase around 8% by the year 2030. That’s right in line with the national average job-growth rate, meaning that CNAs will keep pace with the rest of a growing economy.

PCT Job Outlook

The BLS does not offer job-growth data specifically for patient care technicians. However, their data does indicate that more specialized healthcare jobs like home health care and psychiatric aides are likely to grow even faster than nursing assistant jobs—nearly 25% by the year 2030. Combined with an aging population that will need increasing care in the coming years, it stands to reason that PCTs with more advanced medical training are likely to enjoy an excellent long-term job outlook.

Advancing Your Career from CNA to PCT

If you’ve already completed a CNA training course, continuing your education by earning a PCT diploma could boost your earning potential, as well as potentially opening up new types of roles with different employers. Your CNA training will have prepared you for many of the concepts and skills you’ll encounter during a PCT program, which means you’ll have a head start on many of your classmates.

However, if you’re just beginning your healthcare career journey and you’re still not sure which of these roles is the best option for you, opting for a PCT program right off the bat will give you the flexibility to work as either a CNA or a PCT. Because patient care technician programs go deeper into clinical skills than nursing assistant training courses, getting certified as a PCT will qualify you for both jobs. Even if you think you’d prefer working as a CNA, earning your PCT diploma can help you earn a better salary*, as your higher level of training will demonstrate a more thorough mastery of skills and knowledge than you’ll get from a shorter CNA course.

Healthcare symbols hovering over a laptop and stethoscope

Ready to Start Your Healthcare Career?

Whether you’re more interested in caring for your patients’ social and emotional well-being as a CNA or you’d prefer to perform more technical medical procedures as a PCT, earning your patient care technician diploma will equip you with the tools you need for a long and fulfilling career. Click here to learn more about the patient care technician program at Brookline College, and start taking steps toward your exciting new career today!