Medical Assistant vs Associate Degree Registered Nurse (ADN)

An associate degree registered nurse has completed a state approved and recognized associate degree in nursing and has, similar to bachelor's degree prepared nurses, successfully passed the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) NCLEX-RN examination. Although medical assistants can attend and graduate from a college with an associate degree in applied science (AAS) for medical assisting, it is not a requirement. Medical assistants can also get their training and education in a vocational or technical school as well as from some employers, however, the medical assistant must attend a school that has accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) in order to be eligible to take and successfully pass the medical assistant certification examination offered by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). Private employers do not typically have these accreditations.

The roles of these two healthcare providers are also different. The associate degree registered nurse has many different roles and responsibilities in a vast number of different settings as they provide nursing care to people of all ages with a great variety of acute and chronic illnesses, diseases and disorders. These nurses follow the nursing process which includes physical, emotional and social assessments, nursing diagnosis, planning care, providing and implementing nursing care and evaluating the outcomes of care in terms of the patient's progress towards established goals. Medical assistants, on the other hand, collect data and information for their supervisor who then performs analytical assessments; and they do not diagnose, it is the role of the licensed supervisor, such as the physician, who decides upon a medical diagnosis. They also do not plan care. They implement and provide care as instructed by the supervisory licensed practitioner. They observe and report client changes but they do not formally evaluate the long term and short term outcomes of care.

By 2022, it's expected that there will be a 29 to 31 percent increase in the number of medical assistant positions available.

Although medical assistants and associate degree registered nurses both safeguard and document in medical records, the medical assistant has a far greater role in terms of medical records and other front office details and management than the registered nurse. Medical assistants actively communicate with patients and visitors in the office, they compose, send, receive and process letters and other forms of written communication, they bill health insurance companies, they order and maintain supplies and equipment, they schedule patient appointments, and they perform many other clerical and office roles that registered nurses do not perform but, instead, are performed by others such as the unit clerk or unit secretary in a medical center or hospital.

In summary, both of these healthcare workers are highly valuable for the provision of healthcare services, but they are quite different in many ways.

Differences in Education, Training, & Salary Potential

Length of Education and Training

An associate degree in nursing takes a minimum of 2 years; however, most nursing students take at least 3 years to complete all the required courses for an associate degree in nursing. Some college based nursing programs have accelerated Licensed Practical Nurse to Associate Degree Nursing programs for eligible nurses.

In comparison, medical assistants require less time to get through their education. Those that choose to attend a technical or vocational school can often finish in a single year. However, if the medical assistant student decides to pursue their associate's at a university or college, then they may take the 2 or more years to complete their education, similar to an ADN.

Specialized Training

Training to become a registered nurse at a college or university consists of college courses in non-nursing liberal arts and science courses such as English, anatomy, physiology, microbiology and psychology as well as nursing courses such as the fundamentals of nursing, pediatric nursing, maternity nursing, pharmacology, nutrition, psychiatric mental health nursing, and medical and surgical nursing.

Part of this training is conducted in the classroom and other aspects of this education and training take place in a nursing laboratory and in a clinical setting such as a hospital or nursing home while the student renders nursing care to patients under the direct supervision and guidance of a qualified nursing faculty member.

Medical assistants pursuing an associate's at a university of college may be required to take extra courses similar to those hoping to become an ADN. However, those attending vocational school focus exclusively on classes that are directly relevant to medical assisting. Medical assistant coursework has some crossover with nursing degrees, including classes in anatomy, physiology, and other basic medical courses. However, medical assistant classes concentrate on primary care-related tasks, including taking vital signs, office management, communications, and sample collection.

Educational Prerequisites

All colleges and universities have admission requirements; people interested in nursing must apply and be accepted into the college or university and then meet the prerequisites and other requirements to be admitted into the college's nursing program. Some schools and/or nursing programs require a certain score on the SAT or ACT test, both of which are standardized tests that predict success at the college level.

Some colleges and universities require that potential nursing students complete and pass all their required prerequisite courses such as medication or pharmacology mathematics, anatomy and physiology as well as have a minimum grade point average (GPA) for entry into the nursing program.

Medical assistants have significantly fewer prerequisites to concern themselves with if they are attending vocational school. Those entering vocational school generally must possess a GED or high school diploma, in addition to a clean background check. Students pursuing their education at a college or university will likely find some of the same requirements that ADN's face, including minimum SAT scores and the successful completion basic prerequisite courses to enter into the program.

Salary Potential

Nationally, the average salary for a registered nurse was $65,470 during 2012. Medical assistants salaries average at less than half of this amount, totaling $29,370. However, ADNs require more education and a more intensive course load than medical assistants.

Work Hours and Shifts

Registered nurses can work full time or part time. Nursing shifts can be 8 hours, 10 hours or 12 hours per shift. Nurses work seven days a week, on holidays and all shifts around the clock with the exception of some settings and some employers.

Medical assistants working for primary care offices tend to have a more predictable work schedule that's free of late evening or imposing weekend hours. However, medical assistants working in hospitals may irregular workweeks and longer hours that are more similar to ADN's.

Career Outlook

With the aging baby boomer population steadily requiring more and more care, it may come as little surprise that ADNs have a bright future. According to the United States Department of Labor, the number of ADNs is expected to increase by 25 percent from 2012 to 2022. Much of this growth will be in the nursing homes and other forms of geriatric care. However, there are sure to be many opportunities at out patient care centers as well.

Medical assistants have an even higher job increase to look forward to. By 2022, it's expected that there will be a 29 to 31 percent increase in the number of medical assistant positions available. This is largely due to rapid growth in the primary health sector, which has been stimulated by recent healthcare reforms extending insurance to a larger group of people. In fact, medical assistants have one of the highest growth levels in the healthcare industry.

Differences in Programs


The average tuition cost for students in a public college with residency in the state is about $4000 per year; the average for out of state students is about $8,000 per year nationally. The tuition for private colleges and universities averages about $15,000 per year.

With these tuition costs in mind, an associate degree in a public college with residency in the state totals about $8,000 and a student without established residency in the state will pay about $16,000 for the same degree. The tuition for private colleges and universities far exceed those of public colleges. For example, the tuition for an associate degree is about $30,000 in a private school.

A medical assisting student attending vocational school will pay significantly less than an ADN for their education. On average, one year of technical school costs only $4,000. However, medical assistants attending a college or university will generally pay more than this, depending on tuition price and others costs. In short, medical assistant students attending an institute of higher education will likely pay amounts comparable to what ADN's spend on their education.

Online vs on Campus Programs

All entry level nursing courses must have a campus component because clinical and nursing laboratory experiences under the direct supervision and guidance of a nursing faculty member is mandatory.

Similarly, all medical assistant programs include some form of on-campus learning, as clinical hours are required to graduate at both a college or university or vocational school. In fact, most medical assisting technical schools offer no online classes at all.


Nursing programs at all levels are more competitive than other programs, including medical assistant programs. Potential nursing students are often placed on a sometimes very long waiting list for the nursing program and this list is often based on the person's GPA. The higher your GPA the better your chances of admission. Even with a high GPA, it may take a year or longer to gain entry because the number of students that are admitted is typically highly limited and small.

This is not the case for medical assistant programs, which are typically much less difficult to be admitted to. However, lower tuition schools and areas with a higher population may increase the programs popularity.

Prerequisites and/or Requirements

The prerequisites and requirements of registered nursing programs are also more rigorous than other healthcare education programs although these requirements do vary according to the level of education one is seeking and the school that one chooses to attend.

Though the exact prerequisites depending on the institute, prospective medical assistants would be well-advised to find a program accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). This will open doors for the medical assisting student in the future, allowing them to qualify for special certifications and impress potential employers.