Medical team in a meeting

Medical Assistant vs. Registered Nurse

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

Medical team in a meeting

Once you acquire the education and skills to become a Medical Assistant (MA), you’ll discover 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 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. Here, the focus is on Medical Assistant vs. Registered Nurse and the 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. Registered Nurse: Definition

As we compare Medical Assistant vs. Registered Nurse, you’ll notice some significant differences in the amount of required training, certifications, and average salaries. But keep in mind that some Medical Assistants go on to become Registered Nurses. For you, working as an MA might be a stepping stone to eventually becoming an RN. Others may follow a more direct path to RN. 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 Registered Nurse (RN)?

You may already have a good idea of the Registered Nurse definition. RNs are licensed to work as part of the medical team to support physicians in caring for patients. But their roles aren’t as limited as Medical Assistants. RNs perform many more clinical duties as they coordinate patient care. They also educate patients about various health conditions and can administer medications and treatments.

Medical Assistant vs. Registered Nurse: Job Description and Duties

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 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 Registered Nurse do?

Registered Nurse duties are more advanced than MAs. RNs provide patient care that varies based on where they work and the type of patients. For example, neonatal nurses care for newborn babies with health issues, while critical care nurses work in intensive-care units to care for patients with more severe conditions. But despite the setting they work in, here are the general tasks most nurses regularly perform when working as an RN:

Registered Nurse Responsibilities

  • Consults and collaborates with doctors and other healthcare professionals
  • Assesses patient’s conditions and records histories and symptoms
  • Administers patients’ prescribed medicines and treatments
  • Operates and monitors medical equipment
  • Helps perform diagnostic tests and analyze results
  • Teaches patients and their families how to manage illnesses or injuries

Nurse pushing a stretcher in a hospital

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 RNs Work?

The majority of RNs, 61%, work in state, local, and private hospitals. About 18% work in ambulatory healthcare services, which include doctor’s offices, home healthcare, and outpatient care centers. A smaller number of RNs work in nursing and residential care facilities (6%), government jobs (5%), and educational services (3%). Nurses in hospitals or nursing care facilities usually work shifts to provide 24-hour care for their patients. They may work nights, weekends, and holidays. Nurses who work in offices or schools may work more regular business hours.

Medical Assistant vs. Registered Nurse: 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 choose from five different Medical Assistant certifications. 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 nine months (for a healthcare diploma) to two 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 Registered Nurses

RN candidates usually take one of these educational paths: a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program, an associate degree in nursing (ADN), an associate of science in nursing (ASN), or a diploma from an approved nursing program. Some employers, particularly hospitals, may require a bachelor’s degree. Upon completion of their program, prospective Registered Nurses must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-RN) exam to become licensed.

The NCLEX-PN exam is the exam candidates take to become a Registered Nurse (RN) and obtain licensure in the state where they plan to work. It should not be confused with the NCLEX-PN exam candidates for Licensed Practical Nurse take. Other requirements for licensing vary by state and may include passing a background check.

Brookline College offers a Bachelor of Science in Nursing program to prepare you to take the NCLEX-RN license exam and gain entry-level employment as an RN.

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Registered Nurse?

Depending on your path, you will need to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), an associate degree in nursing, or obtain a diploma from an approved nursing program.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Registered Nurse?

Indeed reports that becoming a Registered Nurse takes about three years on average. The BLS indicates that a BSN takes about four years to complete, an associate degree in nursing or an associate of science in nursing can also take up to four years, and a diploma program can take two to three years. However, the BSN program at Brookline College can be completed in as little as 32 months.

Close up of a woman using a calculator

Medical Assistant vs. Registered Nurse: 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 RNs.

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:

City 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 Registered Nurses Make?

The BLS reports that the average annual wage for Registered Nurses was $83,000 in May 2021. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $59,000, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $120,000.

This chart shows the highest paying industries for RNs:

Industry  Hourly average wage  Annual average wage
Nonscheduled air transportation $ 54.15 $ 112,630
Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing $ 50.61 $ 105,270
Merchant wholesalers, nondurable goods $ 48.67 $ 101,240
Federal executive branch $ 46.93 $ 97,600
Office administration services $ 46.46 $ 96,630

Below are the highest-paying states for RNs:

State  Hourly average wage  Annual average wage
California $ 59.62 $ 124,000
Hawaii $ 51.22 $ 106,530
Oregon $ 47.42 $ 98.630
District of Columbia $ 47.38 $ 98,540
Alaska $ 46.74 $ 97,230

Here are the cities with the highest pay for RNs.

City Hourly average wage Annual average wage 
San Jose, CA $ 74.63 $ 155,230
San Francisco, CA $ 72.90 $ 151,640
Vallejo, CA $ 70.37 $ 146,360
Santa Rosa, CA $ 68.00 $ 141,440
Napa, CA $ 67.15 $ 139,680
Santa Cruz, CA $ 67.11 $ 139,590
Sacramento, CA $ 65.14 $ 135,490
Salinas, CA $ 62.75 $ 130,520
Modesto, CA $ 61.41 $ 127,730
Hanford, CA $ 60.00 $ 124,790

Medical Assistant vs. Registered Nurse: Job Outlook

Now that you understand the job duties for these two healthcare jobs and the educational requirements and average salaries for each, let’s look at the projected job outlooks.

Medical professional holding a chart

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% 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.

RN Job Outlook

Employment for RNs, although not quite as robust as MAs, is projected to grow by 9% from 2020 to 2030.

About 194,500 openings for RNs will become available yearly over the decade. Some of those jobs may result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or retire.

Click here to learn more on how to become a Registered Nurse.

Which Job Is Right for You?

If you’re just starting your healthcare career, you may wonder which path you want to take. Although you can become a Medical Assistant in less time, you can also prepare to work as a Registered Nurse in as little as three years. If you’re genuinely interested in becoming a Registered Nurse, you may want to enter that program from the start. On the other hand, if you’re unsure if healthcare is right for you long-term, a first job as a Medical Assistant might make sense. Although becoming an RN takes more education and passing an exam, the average salary* for RNs is much higher.

Reach Your Healthcare Career at Brookline College

Good luck as you choose the right healthcare career 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 Bachelor of Science in Nursing program to prepare you to take the NCLEX-RN license exam and gain entry-level employment as an RN.