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Why Medical Assistants Have a Better Job Than CNAs

MA medical assistant vs. CNA certified nursing assistant job outlook

Christiaan Triebert / Flickr / CC BY

You’ve probably seen medical assistants (MAs) and certified nursing assistants (CNAs) in your physician’s office, moving around hospitals, or caring for senior family members at assisted living facilities. Though MAs and CNAs may have similar job descriptions, they’re incredibly different careers once you get past the basics.

In this article, we compare training and job opportunities for medical assistants (MAs) and certified nursing assistants (CNAs), so you know exactly what you can expect from each career.

Whether you already have hands-on experience in healthcare or are considering a career change, our list will provide the necessary information to apply to either your medical assistant training course or CNA training with confidence.

A Day in the Life of a Medical Assistant

Medical Assistant What Are Job Responsibilities Duties

Monash University / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND

What does a medical assistant do? It might be easier to ask what a medical assistant doesn’t do! As an MA, you’ll be in charge of preparing patients to see a doctor. This could involve assembling a patient’s medical chart, drawing blood, sanitizing exam rooms, and sterilizing and organizing medical equipment.

Other common duties can include checking vital signs and performing basic physical examinations. What truly differentiates a medical assistant from a nursing assistant (certified or otherwise), however, is their ability to handle desk duties and administration.

A clinical medical assistant may be asked to answer the phone, schedule appointments, fill out medication and allergy information from the patient, and also document and compile charts for the doctor to work from. This tends to take MAs away from hands-on patient care, which comprises the majority of a CNA’s daily routine.

What Does a CNA Do?

As the name suggests, certified nursing assistants work less with doctors and directly support nurses. This is why they’re also referred to as nursing aides. All of their tasks relate directly to hands-on care and patient support, but they wear many hats throughout any given working day.

CNA Certified Nursing Assistant Job Responsibilities Duties Patient Care

Faculty of Medicine NTNU / Flickr / CC BY

A typical shift may involve responding to patient calls, providing direct care (e.g. toileting, bathing, feeding), changing linens, helping patients with physical activities, reviewing food consumption, and tracking inputs and outputs.

CNAs are responsible for taking preventative measures (like repositioning patients to avoid bedsores) but are required to report to their overseeing nurse if they encounter any medical changes like blood pressure and urine output. These medical professionals are responsible for patient safety, which means they must closely observe and monitor patients’ pulse, temperature, blood pressure, and even behavioral changes.

How Do MA and CNA Training Programs Compare?

Accredited MA and CNA programs include classroom education as well as hands-on training. Both training programs also place an emphasis on practical experience and therefore include clinical internships for students. Both careers offer numerous training opportunities.

How to Become a Medical Assistant

CNA nursing medical assistant MA certification education

Rowan University Publications / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND

On-the-Job Training

Prospective medical assistants might be able to work without any formal education, and can receive on-the-job training from their employer. Each state has its own medical assistant requirements, however, this will likely result in lower future salary offers.

Medical Assistant Certification

The most common method for becoming a medical assistant is to complete an MA certificate program. Accredited medical assistant training courses can take around 10 months to one year, and are held at thousands of community colleges throughout the country.

Some colleges may offer online medical assistant programs and nursing assistant programs, but accredited courses are recommended as they require the completion of a guided internship.

Medical Assistant Training Program in NJ - AIMS Education

Medical Assistant Associate Degree

Though an associate degree takes around 18-24 months to complete (and requires substantially more money than a certification program), graduates have more training and a much more competitive resume.

No Matter the Program, One Thing Is Certain

Whichever you choose, being exposed to different types of training can help you discover what your strongest skill sets are, and what you enjoy doing most in a medical environment. Investing time in your education means that you’re more likely to have greater job satisfaction.

Are There Specializations for Medical Assistants and CNAs?

Future MAs may not be sure if they want to specialize in a particular field (like OB/GYN, IVF, or cardiology), but experience typically informs these allied health professionals about the sectors that most appeal to them.

How to Become a CNA

First thing’s first: Each state has its own CNA training requirement, so be sure to check local regulations before enrolling in any CNA program. Technical schools, community colleges, local health providers, and the American Red Cross tend to provide CNA courses that last anywhere from one to four months.

After training, you’ll be required to take your state examination, which includes practical and clinical questions. Because you’ll be working with controlled substances and at-risk patients, your state may require a background check and annual education credits.

For the most competitive resume, choose a CNA course that requires a real-world internship. This will ensure that you have the necessary skills to show prospective employers that you can hit the ground running.

What Are Salaries and Job Markets Like for MAs and CNAs?

As of May 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics concluded that the average income for medical assistants was $32,480, or $15.61 per hour. This is one of the higher-end salaries for allied healthcare careers. Conversely, the average certified nursing assistant pulled in around $27,500, or an hourly salary of just over $13 per hour.

The difference in these incomes is credited to the extended training that medical assistants go through, as well as the high demand for skilled workers. In fact, from 2016 to 2026, the medical assistant field is expected to grow by a whopping 29% compared to a healthy (but considerably smaller) growth rate of 11% for CNAs.

Where Do MAs and CNAs Work?

While CNAs generally work in hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and hospices, medical assistants tend to have a greater selection of job opportunities. Thanks to the huge demand for MAs, they are able to find a more work in a wider variety of work environments (like private practices and clinics, which provide the ability to work closely with practitioners).

If you prefer one-on-one learning, a smaller clinic may suit some MAs better than fast-paced hospital. These locales can also provide the ability to work in both the clinical and administrative fields.

It’s All About Who You know

Just like any workplace, the people you work with possibly have the greatest impact on your happiness and confidence.

If you prefer to work more directly with patients, a CNA role might be a great fit for you. While MAs also work with patients of all ages and health conditions, For people who prefer a slightly more unpredictable list of tasks each day, becoming a medical assistant might suit you better.

Always Weigh the Pros And Cons

Remember that both MA and certified nursing jobs are crucial to supporting patients who need your help. Whether you’re checking their temperature, writing up their records, helping them take their first steps after surgery, or helping them navigate the insurance process, it’s endlessly rewarding work.

Ready to Become a Medical Assistant?

If you’re certain that becoming an MA is the right choice for you, take the first step and check out our medical assistant certificate program today!

27 thoughts on “Why Medical Assistants Have a Better Job Than CNAs

  • KMM says:

    I am currently a CNA both at a nursing home and hospital setting. I just earned my CNA in April of this year so it hasn’t been that long since I have worked as one. Just as any job, there are days I contemplate whether I like being a CNA or if a Medical Assistant is more “me.” Being a CNA is not a bad job but sometimes we know ourselves enough to where maybe we’d be better or feel more comfortable in another role. Currently I am going to school for Diagnostic Medical Sonography at a local technical school and have to have completion of the CNA course before I can get into the program. If I don’t get in, I am thinking about doing an MA program until I can apply again. Please comment if you have MA or even CNA experience. Would love to hear input, pros, cons, etc.

    • Lauren says:

      I spent last year as a CNA in a nursing home, and I really struggled with it, honestly. It may have been the company I was working for, but we were chronically understaffed and I never felt I could give the level of care I wanted to. I went home completely wiped out every day and pretty soon I became miserable. Now, I work as a MA in a orthopedic clinic and the difference is truly night and day. I am so excited to go to work each day. I am entrusted with more and I feel I can give a superior level of care with less of an overwhelming load. I enjoy the balance of patient care with clerical tasks. My patients leave happier and I feel valued and productive. I would say a lot of this has to do simply with company culture, but some of it has to do with the scope of practice. If you prefer to take care of patients in a very hands-on way, CNA is probably the way to go. If you are a bit introverted like me, you may appreciate the reprieve of clerical duties to break up your patient interactions. I hope this helps.

      • Elizabeth B. says:

        Do MA’s typically earn higher pay? Also, I have worked as a NAC for the past 10 years. I work NOC in order to avoid the chaos. I want to do something that will allow for true advancement. I need advice from someone who knows. Thanks

        • Talisha says:

          Hello I am both and honestly where I live in NC the pay rate is the same depending on your experience $12 s the most in my town you’ll start making as a medical assistant and cna’s can start with as low as minimum wage. I’ve been a CNA for almost 5 years and graduated in June 2017 from the MA program. The doctors office I worked for as an MA I didn’t like it was extremely fast paced and cliquish so now I’m currently working as a patient care tech in a hospital.

          • Belinda says:

            Currently looking into this career, I also live in NC. Sanford NC, do you know what the pay rate is here?. Currently a Pharmacy Technician making $14.94 an hour

          • Lisa says:

            I was curious .. what is the proper certification needed to work as a patient care tech in a hospital?

    • Brenda Warren says:

      I’m a CNA & a clinical MA in New Jersey. I haven’t worked as a CMA. The jobs are scarce when you haven’t actually been given a chance to work in the field. So I prefer CNA.

  • Erica Webb, CMA says:

    I understand this is a nursing driven article. A common occurance among the nursing field there is quite a bit of a status complex. So I’m here to clear up that some MA programs are not just some simple certification you can get. Some programs require just as much if not more education, task, and responsibility as any nurse aid or associates program. Associates are available in medical assisting and medical assistants going for their associates are also required to put up to 225 hours of internship work in before graduation, MA’s are also eligible to become state and nationally certified by the AAMA. So if you can accurately tell me the difference between a CMA and CNA… that would be more helpful. Thanks.

  • Katie Peters says:

    I have had my CNA since 2012. I have worked multiple facilities. Recently, I decided CNA wasn’t for me. I am waiting to get into an MA program. I have loved being a CNA, the work is hard but at the end of the day it felt rewarding. My struggles was with staff. Other aides or nurses. I do miss my residents.

  • Joe says:


    • Alana says:

      Actually, you’re wrong. CMAs can administer medication and can administer vaccines as well. Not to mention, CMAs can perform venipuncture. However, prescribing medication or administering IVs is not within the scope of practice for CMAs. There are several things that separate CMAs from CNAs,but that doesn’t mean one is better than the other. I am currently in the process of completing my medical assistant program, so I’ve learned what my scope of practice is.

    • Tracy says:

      You are uneducated. I have been a CMA-AAMA for 9 years and I administer medications both oral and injectables including Biological drugs everyday. Standard pay starts at 18.00 an hour for a certified Medical Assistant in GA. You make more working in a specialty. I took the 2 year Associates degree program. Please stop misleading yourself when you do not know facts.

    • Ana says:

      Your are so wrong. I’m an MA or medical tech in an urgent care facility and we can administer medications, administer injections, draw blood, give IVs, take X-rays, do lab orders, run flu and strep tests, ekgs, etc. as well as the administrative work. MAs actually can do way more than what a CNA can do with minimal supervision primarily working along side physicians rather than nurses.

  • Augka0 says:

    Please i want to start an MA program. What’s their pay rate?

  • Ou says:

    The staffing make the job more harder I love to be cna I will miss my residents

  • Sharice says:

    I’ve been a CNA 10 years way too long. You are limited to where you can work basically its homecare, hospital, assisted living, or nursing home. You can’t give shots or anything of that nature. It is the crapiest job I’ve ever had in my life. If you like wiping people’s butts you are basically a certified butt wiper. I am currently in nursing school and I finish in August. Good luck with your choice if it were me. I’d just go all the way with no short cuts. But if I had to make a choice it definitely wouldn’t be a CNA never ever again.

    • Holly says:

      I like that answer.
      Been a CNA and wouldn’t ever go back.

    • Lee Ann Merrick says:

      Throwing in my 2 cents here..
      I’m a nurse. Many years ago I worked as a CNA….and I loved it. A LOT of nursing jobs involve hands on care. If you don’t enjoy being a CNA what makes you think that nursing is all that much different? The best nurses are the ones that not afraid to get involved and should NEVER ask a CNA to do something they wouldn’t do. The best CNA’s arent afraid to show initiative, are conscientious and attentive, and notify the nurse pf any changes in condition. They are worth their weight in gold. The best nursing care involves a teamwork approach with nurses and CNA’s working together. This is a very important component in providing optimal care. Best of luck in your nursing career!

      • Jackie says:

        Thank you for your comment it was perfectly said. I have been a CNA for 25 years and I am 50 years old. I love caring for my residents. Nursing is not for everyone it is hard work and you must have compassion. Whether you work in a hospital, assisted living, skilled facility or home health you need to be there to help and care for them, it’s not just a pay check.

  • Javier Sevilla says:

    MAs’ responsibilities can be tailored to the needs of a practice. They can manage front-office functions and patient flow and handle a wide range of tasks that would otherwise be performed by receptionists, practice managers, nurses and physicians. Many physicians are unsure of what tasks are appropriate to assign to an MA and do not help MAs work to their full abilities and potential. This article should help you to better understand the MA’s role

  • Keith says:

    What is the difference if any from a Patient Care Technition P.C.T. and a C.M.A. as i have borh certifications .. Just recently graduated abs an lookibg for work.

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