Nursing Assistant vs. Medical Assistant

Medical assistant and nursing assistant both have “assistant” in the name; both clearly work in healthcare settings. So what’s different — besides that one tends to work under a doctor and the other under a nurse?

There are significant differences in common work settings and populations served. Because of this, there are also significant differences in common job duties.

Medical assistant and nursing assistant careers are both entry level. Both can both provide a strong background for other healthcare careers. Medical assistants have a wide range of duties – jacks of all trades. They may choose to pursue more education and specialize in administrative or health tech roles.

MAs and CNAs can make strong nursing candidates. However, neither is part of a direct career track. A person can’t expect to take a bridge program or shorten their nursing education much through either pathway.

Nursing Assistant vs. Medical Assistant: Settings and Duties

Nursing assistants are typically employed in long-term care or extended care. Nursing facilities are the most common setting. Nursing assistants may be employed in other settings like home health or hospitals. Their patients typically need a lot of help meeting basic needs, including hygiene. CNAs perform physical tasks like helping patients transfer from wheelchair to shower. Many patients who are in long-term care settings have a level of dementia as well as physical problems.

Medical assistants are found in a variety of settings, most often in doctor’s offices or outpatient care clinics. These are ambulatory settings – people walk in and walk out the same day. Medical assistants may work the front or back office. They are trained to carry out both clinical and administrative tasks. They may handle paperwork and even do a small amount of billing and coding. They may do some basic in-house lab work. Medical assistants may work in specialty ambulatory care settings (for example, pediatrics).

Medical assistants commonly draw blood. CNAs sometimes do, if they have been trained. Among the duties that are common to both nursing assistants and medical assistants is taking vital signs. Both have some role in the assessment process. Medical assistants take down health histories. Nursing assistants note day-to-day changes in the condition of their patients. Both interact directly with patients and need strong people skills.

Medical assistants earn, on average, a little more than nursing assistants. The mean wage for a medical assistant in 2020 was $17.17 an hour, or $35,720 a yeat. For a nursing assistant, it was $14.77, or $30,720. *2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures for Registered Nurses is based on state data not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed August 2021.

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Preparing for Nursing School

MA programs have more academic coursework, though it’s not as much or as rigorous as what one finds in an RN program. The CNA program will be a better introduction to some other aspects of nursing, including the messier ones.

Both can be springboards to other careers. Prospective CNAs and MAs may want to consider the settings where they are most likely to be employed. Do they want to see the inside of a medical office or the inside of a nursing facility? There are many technician and support roles. Is it possible that one’s future career will be in a diagnostic or ‘lab’ capacity? An MA may experience a bit of this.

CNAs, too, may get to see more than just nursing. They may, for example, see occupational therapy and physical therapy and have some role in supporting therapeutic goals. They may decide that they want to become occupational therapy assistants or physical therapy assistants. It’s important to note that just because a particular support role (diagnostic or therapy-related) falls under the potential scope of an MA or CNA, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they will be involved.

If a person just wants to get in a little healthcare experience, nursing assistant may be the better choice. Nursing assistant programs are much shorter, and a person won’t have to invest the amount they would for medical assisting. They will enter having mastered some of the most basic aspects of nursing: bedside care.

Putting in a strong performance in either setting can translate into references for nursing or other healthcare programs. However people may have stronger references if what they’re doing is more closely aligned with their passions!

Not all the tasks medical assistants perform will be necessary once they become nurses – if indeed they do. Some nurses do have administrative duties — especially those who are past the entry level – though they’ll be quite a bit different than those performed at the MA level.

A bigger question is which one they want to do while they’re preparing for nursing school. Prospective nurses may also consider which one will provide experiences more similar to those they want to be in when they get their nursing degrees.

If a person lives in an area where they need to be credentialed as a nursing assistant before they do their nursing clinicals, then the answer is clearer: Become a CNA.

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