Young smiling medical team

Medical Assistant vs. Certified Nursing Assistant

Discover the Differences in Duties, Responsibilities, Schooling, Requirements, Salary, and Job Outlook

Young smiling medical team

Once you acquire the education and skills to become a Medical Assistant (MA), you’ll discover you have many career options and types of facilities where you can work—like hospitals, outpatient centers, and physician’s offices. But you may not realize that becoming an MA can also serve as a springboard into many related careers or help you move on to additional training programs that can build on your healthcare career.

This article is part of a series that compares the differences between a Medical Assistant and other related careers. This one focuses on Medical Assistant vs. Certified Nursing Assistant and highlights differences in schooling requirements, job outlook, and average salaries for these jobs.

If you’re interested in preparing for a MA career, you can read more in our related article about how to become a Medical Assistant.

Medical Assistant vs. Certified Nursing Assistant: Definition

First, when we compare Medical Assistant vs. Certified Nursing Assistant, we’re not implying that one position is a better option than the other. The right career for you will depend on your personal goals and long-term work preferences. However, we want to point out the essential characteristics of each job, so you can better understand which career path makes the most sense for you. Let’s start by defining each role.

What is a Medical Assistant?

The Medical Assistant definition provided by The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that MAs complete administrative and clinical tasks in hospitals, offices of physicians, and other healthcare facilities. Medical Assistants can choose from several certification programs based on their career goals and the state where they plan to work.

What is a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)?

And the Certified Nursing Assistant definition? Nursing assistants provide basic care and help patients with the activities of daily living like eating and bathing. Nursing assistants often need to complete a state-approved education program and pass their state’s competency exam to become licensed or certified. At this point, they officially become a Certified Nursing Assistant. Unlike MAs, CNAs work primarily on clinical care without administrative duties.

Medical Assistant vs. Certified Nursing Assistant: Job Description

One of the best ways to understand and compare these two careers is to look at the job duties. This will give you a good idea of what the daily work might entail. Let’s start by looking at Medical Assistant duties.

What Does a Medical Assistant do?

Doctors and nurses have come to rely on MAs to handle administrative and increasing clinical tasks as part of their day-to-day responsibilities. In this role, your actual tasks will vary by the type of office or facility you work in, but the following is an excellent general overview of job duties.

Medical Assistant Responsibilities

  • Updates the patient’s medical records
  • Administers medicines under the supervision of a physician
  • Assists during medical examinations
  • Prepares medical samples for laboratory testing
  • Manages the schedule of appointments
  • Assists patients with their bills and in filling out forms

What Does a Certified Nursing Assistant do?

And what about the Certified Nursing Assistant duties? CNAs provide basic care and help with a patient’s daily living activities. Following are a few of the tasks you might regularly perform when working as a CNA.

Certified Nursing Assistant Responsibilities

  • Cleans and bathes patients
  • Turns, reposition, and transfers patients between beds and wheelchairs
  • Records patients’ health concerns and reports information to nurses
  • Measures patients’ vital signs such as blood pressure and temperature
  • Serves meals and helps patients eat
  • Helps patients use the toilet and dress

Medical professionals in a hospital hallway

Where Do Medical Assistants Work?

Next, let’s review where MAs typically work. The majority, 57%, work in physicians’ offices. Another 15% work in state, local, and private hospitals. Others work in outpatient care centers (8%) and offices of chiropractors (4%). Work schedules at these offices and facilities are usually full-time, and some require evenings, weekends, and holidays—especially medical facilities that are always open.

Where Do CNAs Work?

Most CNAs, about 37%, tend to work in nursing care facilities (also called skilled nursing facilities). Another 30% work in state, local, and private hospitals. About 11% work in continuing care retirement communities. And a few work in home healthcare services (6%) or for the government (4%). Like MAs, CNAs may work evenings, weekends, and holidays. But with CNAs, some part-time positions are typically available as well.

Medical Assistant vs. Certified Nursing Assistant: Schooling

Our next comparison is the amount of education you need for each of these careers and how long it will take to finish the required training or degree. Here’s what you need to know:

Educational Requirements for Medical Assistants

Most Medical Assistants must not only complete an educational program accredited by an approved regional or national accreditation agency but also become certified. You’ll study multiple areas in your program, such as patient interaction, basic coding and billing, medical office procedures, and electronic medical records. You’ll also learn how to assess and intervene in specific patient situations. You can choose to complete a diploma program or an associate degree program.

For example, Brookline College offers an accelerated Medical Assisting Program that provides the necessary training for entry-level positions in a healthcare facility such as a clinic, physician’s office, or urgent care facility. This program offers a healthcare diploma.

Once you graduate, you can study for and pass a certification exam. You can choose from five different Medical Assistant certifications once you finish your program. In addition, some employers, or states, require a specific certification to start working in that state. For more information, read our article, The Best Medical Assistant Certification for Your Career.

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Medical Assistant?

You can earn a healthcare diploma or complete an associate degree program.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Medical Assistant?

Your program can take anywhere from 9 months (for a healthcare diploma) to 2 years (if you choose the option to obtain an associate degree). The diploma program at Brookline College can be completed in about nine months.

Educational Requirements for Certified Nursing Assistants

To become a CNA, you must complete a certificate or diploma program recognized by your state. Most training programs cover basic care training, hospice care, CPR, personal protective equipment (PPE), nursing ethics, patient rights, and patient vital signs. Most states require 75 hours of practical experience in an accredited CNA training facility.

Brookline College offers a Patient Care Technician Program that provides the training you need to start working as a nursing assistant or patient care technician.

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Certified Nursing Assistant?

You do not need to earn a degree to work as a CNA. You must complete a certificate or diploma program and finish other requirements based on the state you live in, such as the number of required hours of experience.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Certified Nursing Assistant?

Indeed reports that earning your CNA certificate or diploma can take anywhere from 4 to 16 weeks. More in-depth programs, such as Brookline’s CNA program, take about 34 weeks.

Medical Assistant vs. Certified Nursing Assistant: Salary

Another important comparison is how much you can make performing these two medical jobs. Take a look below to see the average salaries for MAs and CNAs.

Stethoscope next to money

How Much Do Medical Assistants Make?

The BLS reports that the median annual wage for Medical Assistants was $38,000 in May 2021. The lowest-paid 10 percent earned around $29,000, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $48,000.

This chart shows the top paying industries for Medical Assistants:

Industry  Hourly average wage  Annual average wage
Agencies, brokerages, and other insurance-related activities $ 25.46 $ 52,970
Professional and commercial equipment and supplies merchant wholesalers $ 23.53 $ 48,940
Outpatient care centers $ 21.48 $ 44,680
Electronic Shopping and mail-order houses $ 21.36 $ 44,420
Insurance carriers $ 21.34 $ 44,390

Below are the highest-paying states for Medical Assistants:

State  Hourly average wage  Annual average wage
Washington $ 22.75 $ 47,320
District of Columbia $ 22.45 $ 46,690
Alaska $ 22.30 $ 46,390
California $ 21.53 $ 44,780
Massachusetts $ 21.25 $ 44,200

Here are the cities with the highest pay for Medical Assistants:

Metropolitan area  Hourly average wage  Annual average wage
Vallejo, CA $ 28.21 $ 58,670
San Francisco, CA $ 26.41 $ 54,930
San Jose, CA $ 25.90 $ 53,870
Santa Rosa, CA $ 25.74 $ 53,530
Sacramento, CA $ 24.78 $ 51,530
Seattle- WA $ 24.43 $ 50,820
Napa, CA $ 24.27 $ 50,480
Fairbanks, AK $ 22.62 $ 47,060
Portland, OR $ 22.41 $ 46,620
Olympia, WA $ 21.95 $ 45,650

How Much Do Certified Nursing Assistants Make?

The BLS reports that the median annual wage for Nursing Assistants was $33,200 in May 2021. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $23,800, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $44,200.

This chart shows the highest paying industries for Nursing Assistants:

Industry  Hourly average wage  Annual average wage
Junior colleges $ 29.48 $ 61,310
Scientific research and development services $ 21.43 $ 44,580
Insurance carriers $ 20.58 $ 42,810
Federal executive branch $ 20.12 $ 41,850
Technical and trade schools $ 19.36 $ 40,280

Below are the highest-paying states for Nursing Assistants:

State  Hourly average wage  Annual average wage
Alaska $ 20.71 $ 43,080
New York $ 19.56 $ 40,680
California $ 19.12 $ 39,760
District of Columbia $ 18.94 $ 39,390
Oregon $ 18.67 $ 38,830

Here are the cities with the highest pay for Nursing Assistants.

Metropolitan area  Hourly average wage  Annual average wage
San Jose, CA $ 22.93 $ 47,690
San Francisco, CA $ 22.84 $ 47,500
Salinas, CA $ 21.26 $ 44,210
Fairbanks, AK $ 21.10 $ 43,880
Napa, CA $ 20.34 $ 42,310
New York, NY $ 20.17 $ 41,940
Anchorage, AK $ 19.99 $ 41,580
Santa Cruz, CA $ 19.74 $ 41,070
Santa Rosa, CA $ 19.60 $ 40,770
Seattle, WA $ 19.51 $ 40,590

Female healthcare professional on a laptop

Medical Assistant vs. Certified Nursing Assistant: Job Outlook

Now that you have a good idea of the job duties for these two healthcare jobs, as well as the educational requirements and average salaries for each, let’s look at the projected job outlooks.

Medical Assistant Job Outlook

How are MA careers expected to grow over the next decade? The BLS reports that the employment of Medical Assistants is projected to grow 18 percent from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average of all other occupations.

More than 104,000 openings for Medical Assistants are projected each year, on average, over the next decade. These rapidly expanding jobs may be in hospitals, physician offices, and other healthcare facilities. Many of these jobs may require Medical Assistant certifications.

Click here to learn more on how to become a Medical Assistant.

CNA Job Outlook

Employment for Nursing Assistants, although not quite as robust as MAs, is projected to grow by 8 percent from 2020 to 2030.

Roughly 192,000 openings for nursing assistants will become available yearly. Some of those jobs may result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations.

Click here to learn more on how to become a Certified Nursing Assistant.

Which Job Is Right for You?

If you’re just starting your healthcare career, you may be deciding which of these two careers is the best first step. Although you can become a CNA more quickly, don’t let that be the deciding factor. If you’re interested in the administrative side of healthcare and not just the clinical duties, you may want to opt for the Medical Assisting route. The salary*, on average, is higher for MAs as well. Plus, a Medical Assisting background may give you more options for additional training and career advancements in the future.

Reach Your Healthcare Career at Brookline College

Good luck as you prepare to choose the healthcare career that’s right for you and the educational partner to help you prepare to work in your field of choice. Brookline College offers a Medical Assisting Program that provides the necessary training for entry-level positions as a Medical Assistant. It also offers a Patient Care Technician Program that provides the training you need to start working as a nursing assistant or patient care technician.