Medical Assistant vs Nurse (RN)

There are many differences between the roles of the medical assistant and the registered nurse.

Both healthcare workers perform direct patient care functions such as checking and documenting vital signs like pulse rates, blood pressure, respiratory rates and temperature, weighing patients, collecting and processing specimens including blood laboratory samples, performing electrocardiograms and other diagnostic tests like vision and hearing tests, administering some medications and immunizations, removing sutures and surgical staples, and assisting the doctor or another licensed independent practitioner with patient procedures such as minor surgery.

In the United States it is projected that there will be an employment growth of an astonishing 29 - 31% for medical assistants between 2012 - 2022

Some of the indirect patient care roles and responsibilities that both medical assistants and registered nurses perform include collecting data and information about the patient's medical history, their presenting chief complaint, and processing patient information and referrals.
Despite these similarities, however, there are also major differences between the roles of the medical assistant and the registered nurse. All registered nurses are legally licensed by their state after the successful completion of a state recognized and approved school of nursing; and medical assistants are not licensed, although some are certified by a national organization such as the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). Registered nurses are independent practitioners who can legally function within their state legislated scope of practice without the supervision of others, such as a medical doctor and medical assistants are dependent practitioners who must be directly supervised by a licensed professional such as a medical doctor or a registered nurse.

Registered nurses are more involved in direct, rather than indirect patient care that is highly complex and often unpredictable when compared and contrasted to medical assistants. Medical assistants are more heavily engaged with indirect patient care functions such as billing, coding, office management, ordering supplies and equipment, scheduling appointments and other clerical roles when compared to the registered nurse.

Lastly, registered nurses are employed in a greater variety of healthcare settings than a medical assistant. For example, registered nurses are frequently employed in acute care hospitals, long term care facilities, outpatient settings including day surgery and doctor's offices, schools, and prisons. In contrast, medical assistants are most often employed in a community healthcare setting such as a clinic or a doctor's office performing the roles and responsibilities discussed above.

Differences in Education & Programs for CMAs & RNs

Length of Education and Training

Students can attend a diploma granting school, an associate degree program or a bachelor's degree of nursing program in a college or university to become an RN.

Diploma schools of nursing, also referred to as hospital schools of nursing, are now rare. However, this training and education is typically 2 to 3 years in duration. An associate's degree in nursing takes a minimum of 2 years, while a bachelor's degree in nursing takes a minimum of 4 years as a full time student. It should be noted, however, that most nursing students take at least 3 years to complete all of the required courses for an associate's degree in nursing and more than 4 years to complete all the requirements for a bachelor's degree in nursing. Some college-based nursing programs have accelerated Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) to Associate's Degree Nursing programs or Associate Degree in Nursing to a Bachelor's Degree Nursing program for eligible nurses.

In most states, medical assistants actually require no formal education at all. However, many choose to obtain degree from technical or vocational schools, enrolling in programs that take a single year to complete. Those who choose to obtain a degree from a college or university may take 2 or more years to complete their education, depending on what courses they decide to take throughout their enrollment. Regardless, becoming a medical assistant takes much less time than becoming an RN.

Specialized Training

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

The curriculum for diploma schools of nursing is highly similar to that of the college or university; however, college credit is not awarded unless the hospital based diploma school has an academic affiliation with a credit granting college or university.

The coursework for medical assistants focuses much less on the day-to-day care of patients and more on assistance-based tasks. Though they'll become familiar with anatomy, physiology, medical terminology, and pharmacology, they will also place more emphasis on specimen collection, taking vital signs, office management, and laboratory testing.

Education Prerequisites

All colleges and universities have admission requirements; people interested in nursing must apply and be accepted into the college or university and then additionally 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 also 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.
It should also be understood that potential nursing students are placed on a sometimes very long waiting list for the nursing program that 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 into the nursing program because the number of students who are finally accepted is often very limited and small.

Medical assistants attending a college or university may be subject to similar requirements for being admitted into the medical assisting program, including minimum SAT scores and the fulfillment of particular class requirements. However, medical assistants attending vocational school only need to have a high school diploma or GED, as well as a background check free of criminal offenses.

Hospitals, clinics, and private doctors' practices continue to need increasing numbers of medical assistants to support doctors and nurses with the comprehensive treatment plans that meet the complex needs of their increasing number of clients.

Salary Potential

The average annual national salary for a registered nurse for the year 2012 was $65,470. Some employers pay more to registered nurses with a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in nursing.
Medical assistants get paid a little over half of what RN's average, around $29,370 per year as of 2012. However, they have to invest much less time and money into their education and licensure.

Work Hours and Shifts

A registered nurse 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 who don't, for example, have weekend and holiday hours of operation.

On average, medical assistants tend to have much more predictable shifts and avoid working nights or weekends, particularly if they are employed by a doctor's office or clinic. However, medical assistants working at hospitals may have shifts more typical of a registered nursing position.

Employment Outlook for CMAs & RNs

The registered nurse (RN) job market is expected to see a slightly lesser growth rate when compared to other healthcare professions such as medical assisting. This growth rate is expected to be about 19 percent. This anticipated registered nursing growth rate results from our nation's increasing focus on preventive care and the management of chronic illnesses and disorders, such as asthma, COPD, obesity, or diabetes.

Medical assistants have a much higher projected growth rate for the next 10 years than RN's, totaling between 29 and 31 percent by 2022. Why so dramatic? Recent legislation has increased citizen access to primary care facilities, the main employers of medical assistants. This means that more doctor's offices will be opening around the country, thus increasing demand for qualified medical assistants.

Comparison of Education Options for CMAs vs RNs


The average tuition cost for students in a public college with residency in the state is about $4,000 per year; the average tuition 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. Room, board, books and other fees add to these costs.

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. Likewise, a bachelor's degree in a public college with residency in the state totals about $16,000 and a student without established residency in the state will pay about $32,000 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 and the tuition for a bachelor's degree is about $60,000 in a private college or university.

In comparison, the typical medical assistant education costs are significantly lower. Completing a vocational school program in the field only costs around $4,000. However, costs for attending a college or university may vary depending on how long it takes to complete the program, the costs of living, and other factors.

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 by all states across the nation.

Post entry level nursing education, on the other hand, can be done online and with challenge examinations for licensed registered nurses and, in some cases, licensed practical/vocational nurses. For example, licensed practical nurses and associate degree registered nurses across the nation can study on their own and then take nursing examinations to get an accredited and nationally recognized associate degree or a bachelor's degree in nursing, respectively, with Excelsior College of New York. Similarly, many colleges and universities offer online bachelor's and master's degrees in nursing to those who are already licensed as a registered nurse.

Medical assistant education largely takes part on campus because of the job's hands-on nature and, like nursing, required clinical hours. In fact, vocational schools do not offer an online component to their programs at all. However, some students attending colleges and universities are permitted to take certain general education credits online.


Nursing programs at all levels are more competitive than other programs, such as medical assistant and nursing assistant programs. Medical assistant programs vary in their competitiveness, but rarely reach the level of demand experienced in nursing programs.

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 wishes to attend.

Similarly, medical assisting programs have varying requirements and prerequisites. However, most vocational and technical schools require at least a high school diploma or GED, as well as a clean background check. It's also important that medical assistant students decide whether they'd like to attend a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES), which will later allow them to take the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) certification exam.