Medical Assistant vs CNA: What’s the Difference

5 Min Read Published December 5, 2023

Want to get into healthcare but not sure which path to take? Two common entryways include becoming a certified nursing assistant (CNA) or a medical assistant (MA). This guide will explain the differences between these two roles. 

Medical assistant vs CNA

What’s the Difference Between a Medical Assistant vs CNA

Both MAs and CNAs are entry-level healthcare positions. Both careers can provide valuable work experience and be a stepping stone to higher-level healthcare careers. However, there are some significant differences between the two.

The biggest difference between the two careers is that MAs perform both office tasks and patient care tasks, while CNAs generally perform only direct patient care tasks. However, CNAs have considerably more patient care duties than medical assistants and spend more time with patients one-on-one.

What is a Medical Assistant?

Medical assistants work as assistants to medical doctors in outpatient settings such as physician offices or clinics. They assist in various clinical duties as well as office managerial tasks to keep the workplace running smoothly.

What is a Certified Nursing Assistant?

CNAs work under the guidance of a registered nurse or physician in a hospital or other healthcare setting. Their work duties involve providing primary patient care and ensuring safety measures. Unlike medical assistants, CNAs are focused entirely on direct patient care and generally do not perform office or managerial duties.

>> Related: STNA vs CNA: What's the Difference?

Job Duty Differences

Medical Assistant Duties

Medical assistants perform various clinical and office managerial duties, which include:

  • Answering phones, scheduling appointments, recording patient information, and performing front desk office duties
  • Managing patient billing
  • Preparing patients for exams by doing assessments and taking vital signs
  • Assisting physicians with medical procedures and exams
  • Ordering and organizing office inventory, medical equipment, and patient care supplies
  • Organizing exam rooms with supplies, cleaning instruments, and turning rooms over between patients
  • Administering some medications and collecting urine samples or other specimens
  • Organizing referrals and laboratory testing
  • Checking patients in and out for appointments

Certified Nursing Assistant Duties

Certified nursing assistants focus on direct patient care duties. Some of the tasks they perform include:

  • Ambulating patients
  • Turning and pulling patients up in bed
  • Feeding and bathing
  • Catheter care
  • Answering call lights
  • Gathering medical supplies
  • Helping patients with activities of daily living (ADLs), such as shaving or bruising hair and teeth
  • Taking vital signs such as blood pressure, temperature, heart rate, and O2 measurements
  • Documentation 
  • Transporting patients for tests or procedures
  • Cleaning rooms and replacing bed linens
  • Post-mortem care

If you are having a hard time deciding which career is best for you at this time, it might help you to determine if your goal is to work primarily with patients or if you want a mix of both office management and patient care tasks. 

Education Differences

The minimum requirement to obtain an MA or CNA education is a high school diploma or GED equivalent. Both professions will also require cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification. 

Medical Assistant Education

There are several different types of education for an aspiring MA, ranging from 10-month vocational school programs to 2-year community college programs. Vocational programs generally offer a certificate or diploma, and a community college education will earn you an associate degree in medical assistance.

Certified Nursing Assistant Education

CNA educational requirements vary per state. However, in general, students must complete an 8-12 week CNA certificate program at a community college or vocational school. Graduation will grant students either a certificate or a diploma. 

There is another loophole to becoming educated as a CNA. Some teaching institutions will allow nursing students to work as CNAs during their studies as long as they have completed a certain amount of their program. This is helpful as you already have one foot in the door when looking for a job after graduation.

In addition, CNA students must complete hands-on training to make sure they are ready to care for patients within the acute healthcare setting. 

Licensing Differences

Medical Assistant Licensing

Becoming an MA does not require an official license or certification. However, most employers prefer that someone is certified for hire or become certified during their employment.

Becoming a certified medical assistant (CMA) requires passing an exam that includes basic and specialty (either administrative or clinical) portions. In some cases, medical assistants choose to become certified in both administrative and clinical work).

Certified Nursing Assistant Licensing

Unlike MAs, CNAs must become certified before practicing in the U.S.

CNA licensing requirements vary by state, so it’s essential to review your individual state’s requirements for specifics. But in general, most states require passing a competency exam.  Exams generally include multiple-choice questions and a skill-based portion. Upon passing, students earn their CNA credentials and can apply for jobs within their state.

Salary Differences

Medical Assistant Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, the mean income for MAs is $38,270 per year or $18.40 per hour.

CNA Salary

The BLS states that the mean income for CNAs in 2022 was $35,740 per year or $17.18 per hour.

Career Outlook Differences

Medical Assistant Career Outlook

The career outlook is excellent for MAs! The BLS projects 14% job growth between 2022-2032.  There are currently 764,400 MAs working in the US today, and there will be a need for an additional 105,900 over the next ten years.

Certified Nursing Assistant Career Outlook

The outlook for CNAs is also bright. The BLS projects a 4% job growth between 2022-2032.  There are currently 1,406,800 CNAs working in the US, and there is a projected need for an additional 58,400 over the next ten years.

Career Advancement Differences

MAs and CNAs have some options for career advancement within their current roles. However, they are limited in their scope of practice. Therefore, career advancement for both MAs and CNAs most commonly includes taking on more responsibility and training roles within their facility.

The most extensive career advancements for both professions are often earned with higher education to be eligible for more advanced healthcare roles. For example, many CNAs and MAs continue their education by achieving an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree in nursing or another healthcare specialty. Not only does this give them more responsibility, but it also provides a significantly higher salary to match.

Skills Differences

The skills for both MAs and CNAs are very similar as they are both entry-level positions that work in the patient care setting. Both careers require excellent communication skills, organizational skills, and compassion to help the greater good.

The ability to multitask and manage several different patients at once is also essential. Both positions can be stressful and require a calm demeanor, especially when working with patients in distress.

The most significant difference in skills needed is that MAs must possess additional clerical and office management skills to perform successfully in their careers. In contrast, CNAs must master additional patient care skills necessary for the acute care setting.

Final Thoughts

Choosing between becoming a medical assistant and a CNA can be challenging. Hopefully, this guide will provide you with the additional information you need to make a more educated decision.

No matter what route you choose, you will have opportunities to learn first-hand knowledge about the healthcare field and what it is like to work in patient care roles. Embarking into one of these entry-level positions might be an excellent opportunity to discover other career interests you have within the healthcare field.

Sarah Jividen
Sarah Jividen Contributor

Sarah Jividen, RN, BSN, is a trained neuro/trauma and emergency room nurse turned freelance healthcare writer/editor. As a journalism major, she combined her love for writing with her passion for high-level patient care. Sarah is the creator of Health Writing Solutions, LLC, specializing in writing about healthcare topics, including health journalism, education, and evidence-based health and wellness trends. She lives in Northern California with her husband and two children. 

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