Medical Assistant vs Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

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 the certification examination offered by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). Nursing assistants, on the other hand, can become certified by passing one's state's certification examination after the completion of a state approved school of 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 like a urine specimen from an indwelling urinary catheter. Nursing assistants are also actively involved with helping patients in terms of their 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 and clerical, office functions such as billing, scheduling appointments and supply ordering and inventory. 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, administrative 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 rarely take under a year to complete their program. Many students also decide to attend colleges and universities for their associates degree, 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, measuring intake and output 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 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 on more 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 US Government Bureau of Labor Statistics, the salary for a nursing assistant is reported to be about $24,400 for the year 2012. Medical assistants had more earning potentials by a few thousand dollars in 2012, averaging around $29,370.

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 and some employers.

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 a 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 US government's Bureau of Labor Statistic indicates that the demand for nursing assistants will grow by approximately 21 percent from 2012 to 2022.

The future for medical assistants seems a little brighter than that of nursing assistants. Expected to grow up to 31 percent by 2022, 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 dramatic increase in demand for medical assistants.

The training program to become a nursing assistant is about as intense, competitive and of comparable duration when compared to medical assisting education and training outside of the college or university. Like medical assisting, becoming a nursing assistant is a good way for many to launch their lifelong healthcare career and advance to more complex roles such as a nurse, for example.

Differences in Programs


CNA education program costs vary across the country, ranging anywhere from $400 to $3,000. The difference in pricing can be sourced to the cost of class resources, differing clinical hour requirements, and school prestige.

On average, medical assistant education programs cost more than CAN programs. Medical assistants spend an average of $4,000 obtaining their education at a vocational school. This cost can be even higher if the student is attending a university or college, depending on the program's length, tuition costs, and the enrollment status of the student (part time or full time).

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. In addition to clinical hours, most medical assisting programs at vocational schools only offer on-campus learning options. Universities and collages may offer online courses, but this is typically for general education courses related to math and English, rather than courses directly related to medical assistance.


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, as well as 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 programs 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.