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CNA vs Medical Assistant

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Key Differences:

  • Requirements: Both are entry-level healthcare jobs with no requirements
  • Work: Medical Assistants are able to do more, like draw blood, administrative work, basic clinical procedures. CNAs help with basic care like feeding, grooming, and moving around
  • Pay/work environment: Medical Assistants get paid more per hour and can work in hospitals, doctor's offices, clinics. CNAs usually work at nursing homes
  • Licensure: Medical Assistants can be trained online in most states and a license isn't required to get a job. CNA classes always have an in-person component and a certification is required in every state
  • Training: Medical Assistant classes are much longer (6-12 months) and are more expensive than CNA (3-12 weeks)

We recommend becoming a Medical Assistant over a CNA because Medical Assistants get paid more and are able to do more clinical and administrative work. However, CNA programs are shorter and cheaper, which is worth considering.

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Difference between CNA and Medical Assistant

Requirements to become a Medical Assistant vs a CNA

The requirements to become a Medical Assistant and CNA may look similar at first.

  • Both Medical Assistant and CNA programs require that students pass a background check (no felonies or misdemeanors involving assault or theft in the last 5 years). This is because both of these are healthcare roles where you interact with potentially vulnerable patients

  • Medical Assistant and CNA programs usually require a high school diploma or GED, with some schools allowing for students to take an 8th-grade competency exam to be eligible. CNA programs are more likely to be more relaxed about this.

However, there are some important differences:

  • Medical Assistant certifications take several months (3-10 months) while CNA certification is shorter (usually 3-6 weeks) at private training programs. At a community college or accredited school, Medical Assistant programs can take 1-2 years whereas a CNA program would take only one semester (if offered at all)

  • Medical Assistant classes can be expensive ($3000-$10,000), while CNA classes tend to cost much less ($600-1500). However, financial aid for those who qualify is more likely to be available for Medical Assistant classes; it's more common for MA programs to be offered by colleges whereas CNA is often not.

  • Both programs involve an exam after completion to obtain your certification, but there's a difference. The CNA exam is required by the state (and is different per state), but always follows the structure of multiple choice test plus clinical skills test. On the other hand, the Medical Assistant exam is not legally required in most states, except for Idaho, Washington, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Nevertheless, almost all employers require certification as a prerequisite for hiring. There are 3 types of Medical Assistant exams available that are all valid, all offered by private professional organizations.

  • Medical Assistant classes can be done online. Feel free to find online Medical Assistant classes or you can search for "Medical Assistant schools near me".

Responsibilities of a Medical Assistant vs CNA

Medical Assistants do higher level clinical work than CNAs and also do administrative work. For example, they may draw blood or prepare medications. MAs provide support to doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals. They:

  • Perform clinical duties such as collecting lab specimens, drawing blood, and administering medications

  • Assist with patient education and preparation for examination or surgery by taking patients' vital signs and preparing them for procedures such as x-rays

  • In some states, administer injections or prepare medications under direct supervision of a physician or nurse

  • Do administrative tasks such as answering phones, scheduling appointments, and maintaining medical records

In contrast, CNAs primarily help with activities of daily living, which require less clinical training. This includes:

  • Assisting with personal hygiene, feeding, bathing, and dressing

  • Measuring vital signs

  • Lifting and moving patients

  • Assisting with patient care by identifying areas of concern (like any bruising, other injuries)

Who makes more, CNA or CMA?

CMAs make more. CMAs get paid on average $42,000 annually ($20.19 per hour) while CNAs make on average $38,200 annually ($18.36 per hour), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Job opportunities for CNAs vs Medical Assistants

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Is Medical Assistant higher than CNA?

Medical Assistants have more advanced responsibilities (both clinical and adminstrative) and are paid better than CNAs. Medical Assistants, for example, are allowed to draw blood. Both are entry-level healthcare roles. Below we break it down:

  • Job Growth: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, CNA jobs are expected to grow by 4% between 2022 to 2032. Medical Assistants are expected to grow even faster at 14%! This is because of the rising cost of other healthcare staff, such as nurses. Hospitals are turning to Medical Assistants as a more affordable option.

  • Work Environment: Medical Assistants are most commonly found in doctor's offices, working close to 9-5 roles. Some will work in hospitals. A CNA will generally work in skilled nursing facilities or hospitals, with many opportunities for overtime or different shifts. Assisted living facilities and home health are also common options for CNAs.

  • Career Mobility: Both are beginner roles in healthcare, so promotions typically require additional certifications such as a Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN) or Registered Nurse (RN) credential. However, there are still ways to get promoted and advance more, like any job. Read our post on what comes next for CNAs.

Pros of CNA over Medical Assistant

  • CNAs form stronger relationships with patients. CNAs typically work with the same 5-10 patients in a nursing home or assisted living facility. We've heard some stories of CNAs becoming closer with residents than the residents' own families. If you prefer working with the same patients on a daily basis and forming relationships with them, then CNA will provide more opportunities for that.

  • CNAs have more hands-on responsibilities. Although Medical Assistants are more clinically trained, they typically end up doing more administrative work. If you like moving and work with your hands every hour of the day, CNA work will certainly keep you occupied.

  • CNA programs are shorter and more affordable. If you're looking to become employed as quickly as possible after training—maybe you're looking to start working ASAP, or you want to quickly advance to your next role (e.g., RN or LVN)—then CNA may be better for you. There are also more CNA programs, with day, evening, accelerated, weekend, etc. options.

  • There's more variety in CNA job opportunities. Whether they are looking to take advantage of shift differentials or have odd schedule requirements, many CNAs appreciate the variety of job opportunities. You can try working in a nursing home, hospital, travel CNA, or something else.

Pros of Medical Assistant over CNA

  • Medical assistants are paid more. Medical Assistants can make as much as $2-4/hr more than CNAs. 

  • Medical assistants do more administrative work. If you enjoy receptionist, data entry, or maintaining medical records, Medical assistant work could be for you.

  • Medical assistants get involved in clinical tests. Medical assistants perform basic lab tests, draw blood, and prepare patients for other types of tests. If you're interested in this kind of clinical work, Medical assisting will give you some exposure to it.

  • Medical assistants have more stable working conditions. Medical assistants generally work 9-5 shifts at doctor's offices, whereas CNAs have the opportunity to work overtime or longer shifts at nursing homes.

Final Thoughts

If you're weighing the options between pursuing a career as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) or a Medical Assistant, there are plenty of factors to consider, particularly depending on individual preferences. As we have discussed, there are many similarities between these two professions, but also some key differences. If you want better pay, more administrative work, or more involved clinical work, then becoming a Medical Assistant might be right for you. On the other hand if a short & fast program is important to you or you want to try out different job opportunities/environments, then becoming certified as an Certified Nursing Assistant could be your answer! Know that whatever path you choose, we will always be here to support you. Good luck!

Athena Kan
Written by
Athena Kan

Athena is Co-founder and CEO of Dreambound.

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