In addition to other unlicensed assistive personnel like patient care technicians and personal care aides, there is less of a difference between a medical assistant and a nursing assistant when compared to other healthcare providers.

Both can become certified, but they cannot be licensed. For example, medical assistants can be certified by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) after graduation from a medical assisting educational program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) and successfully passing AAMA’s certification examination. On the other hand, nursing assistants can become certified by passing their state’s certification examination after completing a state-approved program for nursing assisting. After passing these examinations, the medical assistant has the Certified Medical Assistant title and the nursing assistant holds the Certified Nursing Assistant title. Both titles are classified as dependent practitioner titles that can only function under the supervision of a licensed healthcare practitioner, such as a registered nurse or physician.

Nursing assistants and medical assistants perform a number of similar roles and responsibilities for patients of all age groups from infancy to old age. For example, both observe, monitor, and report/record the physical and emotional status of the patient; they take and document vital signs like the person’s pulse, temperature, blood pressure and body temperature; they weigh the patient, collect some specimens, and assist with some treatments and procedures.

Some of the major differences between the nursing assistant and the medical assistant are that the nursing assistant works in a greater variety of healthcare settings, such as in hospitals and nursing homes. They do not collect sterile specimens and, except for certain conditions that vary among our 50 states, they do not administer any medications or perform any sterile procedures such as wound dressing changes and the collection of sterile specimens. Nursing assistants are also actively involved in helping patients with activities of daily living, which medical assistants do not engage in. Some of the activities of daily living include bathing, hygiene, dressing, grooming, and exercises such as walking and ambulation.

In contrast, medical assistants perform a greater variety of diagnostic tests like hearing and vision testing, as well as clerical office functions such as billing, scheduling appointments, and keeping supplies stocked. In summary, the medical assistant has two major role categories. They serve in the clinical, patient care role and they function in the office, administrative role. Nursing assistants perform primarily the clinical patient care role and, in some settings, they may assist others in office functions.

Differences in Education & Programs

Length of Education and Training

Training and education to become a nursing assistant is offered by community-based technical or vocational schools, as well as some employers, like those in the long-term care nursing home industry. The duration of the education and training can range from a couple of months to about a year, depending on the program and whether the student attends school full-time or part-time.

Conversely, medical assistants attending vocational or technical school usually take around a year to complete a diploma or certificate program. Many students also decide to attend colleges and universities for an associate’s degree in medical assisting, which can take two or more years to complete depending on how many courses the student enrolls in per semester.

Specialized Training

Nursing assistant courses consist of basic anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, nutrition, the activities of daily living, infection control, basic patient safety, growth and development along the life span, written and oral communication, observation and reporting, documentation, legal and ethical issues, vital signs, the promotion of independence and self-care, and meeting the emotional/psychological, cultural and spiritual needs of patients. Part of this training is conducted in the classroom, while other aspects take place in a nursing laboratory or clinical setting, such as a hospital or nursing home, where the student renders care under the direct supervision and guidance of a qualified registered nursing faculty member.

The core curriculum for medical assistants is similar to nursing assistants, but deviates when it comes to job-specific tasks. They are required to know medical industry basics – such as medical terminology, anatomy, and physiology – but also focus more on sterile specimen collection, taking vital signs, laboratory testing, and other assistance-based tasks. Medical assistant education does not focus on the day-to-day life of patients like nursing assistant education does.

Educational Prerequisites

Similar to medical assistants, nursing assistants typically require a high school diploma or GED, as well as a clean criminal background check. However, medical assistants attending a college or university may also be required to have certain SAT scores or pass a group of core classes before being admitted into the medical assisting program. Nursing assistants do not face these challenges.

Salary Potential

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for a nursing assistant is reported to be about $30,290 as of 2021. Medical assistants had more earning potential by several thousand dollars in 2021, averaging around $37,190.

Work Hours and Shifts

Nursing assistants can choose to work full-time or part-time. The shifts can be 8 hours, 10 hours, or 12 hours per shift. Like nurses, nursing assistants work seven days a week, on holidays, and all shifts around the clock with the exception of some settings.

On the other hand, medical assistants often have much more typical hours without evenings or weekends, as many work in doctor’s offices and other primary care facilities. However, those employed by a hospital may have a work schedule similar to nursing assistants.

Career Demand

Nursing aides (NAs) and certified nursing assistants (CNAs) are expected to see increases in terms of their employment opportunities in multiple areas including in residential long-term care facilities that predominantly care for the aging population and those with long term, chronic diseases and disorders. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that the demand for nursing assistants will grow by approximately 5 percent through 2031.

The future for medical assistants seems a little brighter than that of nursing assistants. Expected to grow up to 16 percent by 2031, the medical assisting career path is rapidly expanding in tandem with the primary care sector. It’s become easier to access to medical care than it has ever been before, leading to a dramatic increase in demand for medical assistants.

Differences in Programs


There are notable differences in tuition costs between CNA programs and medical assistant programs, with varying ranges of tuition figures. CNA programs generally have lower tuition costs compared to MA programs. The tuition range for CNA programs typically falls between $500 and $2,000. These programs are relatively short in duration, often spanning a few weeks to a few months. CNA programs primarily focus on providing basic nursing care skills, such as assisting with daily activities, monitoring vital signs, and maintaining patient hygiene. The lower tuition costs for CNA programs make them more accessible to individuals seeking an entry point into the healthcare field.

On the other hand, medical assistant programs tend to have slightly higher tuition fees compared to CNA programs. The tuition range for MA programs can vary from around $1,000 to $10,000, depending on factors such as program length and institution. These programs typically cover both administrative and clinical skills, including medical billing, office management, patient care, and basic laboratory procedures. Medical assistant programs are usually longer in duration compared to nursing assistant programs, ranging from a few months to a year. The higher tuition costs associated with MA programs reflect the broader scope of education and skills provided, as well as the potential for greater job opportunities within the healthcare field.

Online vs Campus Programs

CNA coursework can take place mostly online or entirely on campus, but even online schools require a minimum number of in-person clinical hours to give the student hands-on experience in the field. Federal law dictates that CNAs engage in a minimum of 16 clinical hours, but some programs will require more.

Medical assisting programs also mix online and on-campus learning, but medical assistants often require more in-person engagement during their education than a CNA. Universities and colleges may offer online courses, but students should still expect to complete some in-person clinical hours, typically arranged in the student’s local area with approval from the program director.


When it comes to entering an educational program, CNAs have a fairly low level of competitiveness because they are an entry-level healthcare position. Much like CNAs, medical assistants tend to have more mild competition than other medical fields, including CNAs. However, the level of competition for both CNA and medical assistant programs can vary depending on local demand. Students living in rural areas will have better luck getting into a program, particularly if the program has higher tuition fees on average.

Prerequisites and/or Requirements

Aside from a clean background check and a high school diploma or GED, there are no other requirements to enter an educational program for either a CNA or medical assistant. However, both CNAs and medical assistants may want to carefully select a program that meets particular requirements. CNAs should consider their prospective program’s exam pass rate before committing to a school. A success rate of 75% or higher is ideal.

Though it’s certainly not required, medical assistants may want to investigate whether or not their potential program is accredited by the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) or the Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). This would qualify the medical assistant student for a special American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) certification in the future, making them a better prospect to employers.

Daniela Fuentes, CMA
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