Medical Assistant or Certified Nursing Assistant: Which One Is Right for You?

Medical Assisting (MA) and Certified Nursing Assisting (CNA) are two professions in the field of medicine that have gained more popularity in the last several years. These two occupations have similar job descriptions and they may work together in the same setting, but their everyday job duties vary quite a bit. The demand for both occupations is on the rise, and it will only continue to increase in the years to come due to the aging baby boomer population. Many individuals want to pursue a career in the medical field, but not everybody is able to dedicate a lot of time or money into schooling which is why professions like certified nursing assisting (CNA) or medical assisting (MA) are in such high demand and perfect for individuals who want to get their foot in the door as quickly as possible.

Both occupations fulfill different roles in the healthcare field and they help keep hospitals and medical facilities running smoothly. Medical assistants are mostly found working in physicians’ offices, hospitals, and outpatient clinics. Certified nursing assistants work in hospitals, nursing homes, adult daycare centers, and long-term residential facilities. They tend to focus more on the everyday tasks and care that patients need, such as bathing, eating, and taking medications. Medical assistants work directly with doctors. They help them treat patients and prepare everything before the day starts.

To help you decide which career path is most suitable for you, we’ve put together a guide talking about these two professions and some important factors to consider when choosing one, such as job duties, work environment, licensure, educational requirements, and future job outlook. 

What is a Medical Assistant (MA)?

Medical Assistants (MAs) play a huge role in keeping healthcare offices running smoothly. They explain physicians’ instructions and help patients feel at ease. In addition to their clinical duties of caring for patients, they are also responsible for taking on administrative duties, such as preparing medicine for patients, preparing for procedures, drawing blood, and administering medication. They work alongside physicians and can be found working in outpatient or ambulatory care facilities, such as medical offices or clinics. Medical assistants are known for being very detail oriented and having strong analytical, interpersonal, and technical skills.

What is a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)?

Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs) are sometimes called nursing aides, and they mostly work in home health care or nursing homes helping patients with activities of daily living (ADL). They tend to have the most interaction with patients as they are the main caregivers and they work under the supervision of nurses. CNAs should have good communication skills, compassion, physical stamina, and patience.

Job duties:

CNAs and MAs share a lot of the same duties, however, there are also some differences that set them apart from each other. One of the main differences between the two professions is that medical assistants move back and forth between patient care and administrative tasks while certified nursing assistants (CNAs) mostly do patient care.

Medical Assistants are responsible for both patient care and administrative tasks. They are a crucial part of the healthcare system because their role gives doctors and nurses the ability to see more patients. Some of their everyday duties include: 

-Taking vital signs 

-Drawing blood

-Answering phones and scheduling appointments

-Filling out insurance forms 

-Handling bookkeeping and billing 

-Updating and filing patient appointments 

-Explaining medical treatments to patients 

-Administering medication and injections to patients 

-Preparing treatment rooms for examinations 

-Taking electrocardiograms

-Collecting lab specimens

-Performing lab tests 

CNAs are responsible for helping patients with daily activities of living (ADL). Some CNAs are allowed to administer medication depending on where they work and their level of experience. Most CNAs work in nursing care facilities, hospitals, assisted living facilities, and retirement communities, but they can also work in hospitals and other healthcare facilities. Some of their job duties include:  

-Patient bathing 

-Cleaning rooms

-Assisting in home health services 

-Providing and emptying bedpans

-Answering patient calls

-Serving meals and helping patients eat

-Taking vital signs 

-Gathering medical supplies

-Assisting patients with physical therapy 

Work environment:

CNAs typically have more one on one interaction with patients than MAs. They work in hospitals, nursing homes, and hospice centers. Medical assistants assist doctors can be found working mostly in physicians’ offices, hospitals, and outpatient clinics. One difference in work environments is that medical assistants tend to have more options when it comes to choosing where to work. For example, they have the ability to work in private practices and clinics, which are more suitable for MAs since they can do both patient care and administrative tasks. Additionally, the working environment for CNAs tends to be more hectic and busy than that for MAs. 

Educational requirements for MAs:

Becoming a medical assistant or a CNA is a great way to get started in the medical field because it doesn’t require a lot of time or money. Some education and formal training is required, but you won’t be spending many years in school and you can begin working in the field in a short amount of time. Most medical assistants are not required to hold a state license or certification to practice in the field, however, most employers prefer that MAs come in with some education or experience. Some clinics require that MAs have at least one certification, especially if they plan on specializing in a specific area of medicine.

Moreover, medical assistants have two options when it comes to getting an education. They can either get a medical assistant certificate or go through a diploma program. On average, it takes approximately 9 to 12 months to complete an MA certification program, and two years to complete an associate degree program. After the program is over, students will receive a certificate or diploma. Medical assistants also have the option to obtain their associates degree, which would allow them to advance in the workplace and gain more experience. MA programs are offered at community colleges and vocational schools. 

Educational requirements for CNAs:

Certified nursing assistants are required to complete a state-approved educational program. These programs are offered at community colleges, hospitals, and technical schools. CNA programs normally take 6 to 12 weeks (although some may take up to a year depending on how thorough the program is) to complete and the education includes both hands-on learning and classroom instruction. Following the training program, CNAs are normally required to complete some clinical work at a long-term care facility. 

Licensure:

CNAs and MAs do not require licensure, however, certification is needed. Each state has a different set of requirements and regulations, but in general, most states require a state-approved training program and nursing assistant exam to be able to practice. After certification is earned, individuals are added to their state’s nursing assistant registry. Continuing education classes and certification renewal is also required every few years in order to stay on the registry. 

Job outlook: 

Knowing the opportunities that a profession will provide in the foreseeable future is very important. Medical assistants and CNAs have a very promising future. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, medical assisting and certified nursing assisting are amongst the nation’s fastest growing healthcare occupations. This is due to the advancement in technology and the aging baby boomer population that will be in need of medical care and treatment. As a result, more healthcare professionals will be needed. As the older population of baby boomers will continue growing, so will the demand for preventative medical services. This will allow facilities to hire more medical assistants and CNAs.

Ultimately, deciding between these two professions can be difficult, but one way to determine which one would be a better fit for you is by evaluating your skills and interests. The CNA profession provides a more fast-paced and hands-on type of environment, while MA might be a better fit if you enjoy the administrative side of the field as well. For example, MAs should be comfortable with technology as they will be using it more often than CNAs to input data. CNAs should be comfortable with working on their feet the majority of the day and moving around a lot. They are more likely to be found working in hospitals and on bigger teams, so the environment will be more active and chaotic at times.

Pursuing a career as a certified nursing assistant or medical assistant is a great way to get started in the healthcare field. Moreover, if you want to pursue a higher level job in healthcare, being an MA or CNA is also a great starting point. A lot of people use the CNA or MA route as a stepping stone to another job. They will get certified in these professions and work for a period of time to gain some experience while they simultaneously complete their LPN or RN educational program. It’ll allow you to gain some experience, knowledge, and skills which you can use and apply to any future jobs. Individuals who pursue a career as a CNA or MA can expect to have a decent amount of job security and a bright job outlook in the years to come as there will be a lot more job openings.

Medical Assistant Program offered at these campus locations:
  • Huntsville
  • Quad Cities
  • Evansville
  • Fort Wayne
  • Granger
  • Kokomo
  • Lafayette
  • Muncie
  • Bowling Green
  • Erlanger
  • Hopkinsville
  • Owensboro
  • Ann Arbor
  • Battle Creek
  • Brighton
  • Canton (MI)
  • Davison
  • Flint
  • Grand Rapids
  • Kalamazoo
  • Kentwood
  • Lansing
  • Madison Heights
  • Midland
  • Muskegon
  • New Baltimore
  • Port Huron
  • Saginaw
  • Taylor
  • Cincinnati
  • Dayton
  • Elyria
  • Mansfield
  • Niles
  • Canton (OH)
  • Sylvania
  • Johnson City
  • Knoxville
  • Charleston
  • Morgantown
Dental Assistant Program offered at these campus locations:
  • Huntsville
  • Evansville
  • Fort Wayne
  • Granger
  • Kokomo
  • Lafayette
  • Muncie
  • Erlanger
  • Owensboro
  • Ann Arbor
  • Brighton
  • Canton (MI)
  • Davison
  • Flint
  • Grand Rapids
  • Kalamazoo
  • Kentwood
  • Lansing
  • Madison Heights
  • New Baltimore
  • Muskegon
  • Saginaw
  • Cincinnati
  • Dayton
  • Elyria
  • Niles
  • Johnson City
  • Knoxville
  • Charleston
  • Morgantown
Veterinary Assistant Program offered at these campus locations:
  • Huntsville
  • Erlanger
  • Canton
  • Kalamazoo
  • Madison Heights
  • New Baltimore
Pharmacy Technician Program offered at these campus locations:
  • Huntsville
  • Evansville
  • Fort Wayne
  • Granger
  • Muncie
  • Bowling Green
  • Brighton
  • Davison
  • Kalamazoo
  • Kentwood
  • Lansing
  • Madison Heights
  • Saginaw
  • Cincinnati
  • Mansfield
  • Johnson City
  • Charleston
Nursing Assistant Program offered at these campus locations:
  • Grand Rapids
  • Kalamazoo
  • Midland
Medical Insurance Billing & Office Administration Program offered at these campus locations:
  • Huntsville
  • Evansville
  • Fort Wayne
  • Granger
  • Kokomo
  • Lafayette
  • Muncie
  • Bowling Green
  • Erlanger
  • Owensboro
  • Ann Arbor
  • Brighton
  • Canton (MI)
  • Davison
  • Flint
  • Grand Rapids
  • Kalamazoo
  • Kentwood
  • Lansing
  • Madison Heights
  • New Baltimore
  • Port Huron
  • Muskegon
  • Saginaw
  • Taylor
  • Cincinnati
  • Dayton
  • Elyria
  • Niles
  • Mansfield
  • Johnson City
  • Knoxville
  • Charleston
  • Morgantown
Occupational Therapy Assistant Program offered at these campus locations:
  • Hopkinsville
  • Quad Cities
Nursing Program offered at these campus locations:
  • Canton (OH)
Practical Nursing Program offered at these campus locations:
  • Canton (OH)
Veterinary Technology Program offered at these campus locations:
  • Canton (OH)
Business Management Program offered at these campus locations:
  • Hopkinsville, KY
Medical Assistant Associate of Applied Science Degree online program
Health Care Administration Associate Degree online program
Human, Social, and Health Services Associate of Applied Science Degree online program
Medical Billing Administrative Specialist Associate Degree online program
Medical Office Administration Certificate Program online program