3 Ways to Go from a Medical Assistant to an RN
By: Kathleen Gaines MSN, BA, RN, CBC
Becoming a medical assistant (MA) is a great entry point for a career in healthcare. It’s an effective way to learn about patient care and gain experience that can be used as a first step into a medical career such as becoming a registered nurse, physician assistant, or even a doctor.
The U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks medical assistants as one of the best jobs for individuals without a college degree and interested in the medical field. Currently, it ranks #10 in Best Health Care Support Jobs, #7 in Best Jobs Without a College Degree, and #61 of 100 Best Jobs. This is a hot and in-demand field!
In this guide, we’ll explain what a medical assistant does, how to transition to become a registered nurse (RN), MA to RN programs, and much more.
What is a Medical Assistant?
A medical assistant is an allied health professional that works with physicians, nurse practitioners, and registered nurses to care for patients in a variety of healthcare settings. MAs perform both administrative duties and clinical healthcare-related duties.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for a medical assistant in 2020 was $35,850 per year or $17.23 per hour. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $26,930 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $50,580.
Employment of medical assistants is projected to grow 19 percent from 2019 to 2029, with a need for an additional 139,200 MAs.
Becoming a medical assistant can take one to two years, depending upon whether your goal is simply to obtain your certification or to combine certification with an associate's degree.
Can a Medical Assistant Become a Registered Nurse?
Yes, medical assistants can become registered nurses! Additional schooling and certifications are required, which take approximately two to four years to complete.
While MAs might know the basics of nursing care, they do not have the advanced pathophysiology or pharmacology knowledge that nurses possess.
After attending an accredited nursing program, individuals then take the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). Passing the examination is required to become licensed by the state's board of nursing.
What’s the Difference Between a Medical Assistant and a Registered Nurse?
There are some significant differences between being an MA and an RN. Some of the major ones are:
Duties and Responsibilities
Medical assistants primarily assist physicians and other healthcare professionals during tests, procedures, as well as office administrative tasks. Furthermore, they perform basic patient care including taking vital signs and assisting with activities of daily living.
Registered nurses, on the other hand, are focused exclusively on patients and their care. RNs do not perform many administrative duties unless in a managerial role.
In addition to providing basic patient care, nurses can perform procedures, such as starting intravenous lines and administering advanced medications like chemotherapy. Furthermore, nurses can become nationally certified in specific areas of nursing.
Scope of Practice
Nurses work under their own licenses, which enables them to perform a wider range of duties than medical assistants. MAs, however, can not perform their duties without the direct supervision of another medical professional.
A major difference between MAs and RNs is the salary and income potential. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for a registered nurse in 2020 is $80,010 per year or $38.47 per hour.
Meanwhile, the median salary for a medical assistant in 2020 according to the BLS, is $36,960 per year or $17.75 per hour. This is a very stark contrast.
How Can a Medical Assistant Role Prepare You for a Career as a Registered Nurse?
Becoming a medical assistant is a great first step for individuals who are interested in a healthcare career but are not sure what road to take. It is also ideal for individuals that need to work in order to pay for school, can’t commit to a nursing program full time, or are unsure if healthcare is the right field for them.
>> Related: 3 Steps to Becoming a Medical Assistant
Being responsible for a patient’s life can be scary and overwhelming, so becoming a medical assistant first can help ease the transition.
Medical assistants have the ability to work side by side with other healthcare professionals and see what registered nurses do on a daily basis. It provides them with clarity regarding the roles and responsibilities of a nurse and allows individuals to make a fully informed decision which in turn can benefit their patients.
3 Ways to Go From Medical Assistant to Registered Nurse
There are several different paths you can take to become a registered nurse. Multiple factors should be considered when determining which path is best, including career goals, financial abilities, and personal responsibilities.
The most common paths you can take are:
- MA to Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN)
- MA to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
- MA to licensed practical nurse (LPN) to RN
There are pros and cons to each path. Discussing your options with a school counselor can help you narrow down the best options for you. Also, speak with the human resources department at your place of employment. Many offer tuition reimbursement and partner with different local and online universities that can offer discounts.
Steps to Becoming a Registered Nurse
- Step 1: Decide which type of program is the best fit for your career goals and personality
- Step 2: Apply to and graduate from an accredited nursing program
- Step 3: Sit for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) for licensure
- Step 4: Apply for state-specific license
MA to RN Programs
Unfortunately, there is not a specific MA to RN bridge program as seen with other careers like LPN to RN. The main reason is that the curriculum and clinicals are very different.
RNs are expected to complete college-level general education along with nursing courses to earn their degree. This is the case regardless if you earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Medical assistant programs do not always include collegiate-level education, although some do.
If becoming an RN is your ultimate goal, consider enrolling in a program that can assist you later. When deciding to enroll in an RN program, make sure to talk to the department to see if any of your previous courses are transferable. It can help save you time and money.
When deciding the best path to take, make sure the programs are accredited. If the medical assistant program or nursing program is not accredited you will not be able to sit for the NCLEX, transfer credits, apply for federal financial aid, and gain meaningful employment.
MA to ADN Pathway
This is the quickest way for a medical assistant to become a registered nurse. An Associate’s Degree in Nursing is often earned through hospital-based programs or community colleges and typically takes two to three years to complete.
However, MAs may be able to apply some of their prior coursework to the program and shorten it dramatically. Ultimately, this is up to the nursing program and should be thoroughly discussed with the program director.
Applying previous coursework not only shortens the program but also saves money. If possible, attend the same community college for your ADN that awarded your MA license. This will make the transferring of credits very easy.
Although an associate's degree can be earned quickly, it does not open as many job opportunities and career advancements as earning a bachelor’s degree. Consider your long-term goals when picking a program.
MA to BSN
This pathway will take more time but it will award you a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree that opens a wide variety of career opportunities. This is a good pathway for you if you are interested in earning an advanced practice degree/master’s degree in nursing. Without a BSN, you will not be able to continue your education at the graduate school level.
Earning a BSN takes three to four years at a traditional college or university. Some classes from your MA program can be transferred. Furthermore, if you have been a medical assistant for a considerable amount of time (over five years) most programs will not accept transfer credits. In that instance, the program may take the full 4 years. It will also increase the overall cost of the program.
MA to LPN to RN
This is the longest pathway to becoming a registered nurse, but it can be a great stepping stone for you if you are not sure about a career in healthcare. An LPN (licensed practical nurse) program takes between one to two years depending on the program.
After graduating from an LPN program, you can work at the bedside to gain invaluable experience before enrolling in an LPN to RN bridge program. These programs can be completed in two to four years at community colleges, vocational schools, colleges, and universities.
Taking the next step to becoming a registered nurse can be overwhelming and rewarding. Remember to look at all of your options, discuss possible tuition reimbursement with your employer, and choose a program that is accredited. Being a medical assistant is a great healthcare career but becoming an RN will open many more doors for you including an increase in salary, job responsibilities, and career advancement.