Medical Assistant vs. Certified Nursing Assistant (MA vs. CNA)

If you are looking to enter the healthcare field, you may be considering becoming a medical assistant (MA) or certified nursing assistant (CNA). Both positions play an essential role in patient care.  

A medical assistant is a healthcare worker who provides support to other staff. They help by performing administrative tasks, such as scheduling patient appointments. In addition, they also assist with clinical tasks, such as taking patient vitals and collecting laboratory samples. 

A certified nursing assistant helps provide care for patients during their stay in medical and nursing facilities. They work under the supervision of nurses. Some tasks they perform are grooming, feeding, and moving patients. They can also take vitals and assist with certain procedures.  

At first glance, MAs and CNAs may seem similar. However, there are several important differences between the two. This guide will go over the key differences between MAs and CNAs to help you decide which career is right for you.

Medical Assistant vs. Certified Nursing Assistant Overview

Because medical assistant and certified nursing assistant are both healthcare careers, they share some similarities. However, they each have key differences to keep in mind. Here is a quick overview of the two careers:

Medical Assistant Certified Nursing Assistant
Description Assist healthcare staff with clinical and administrative tasks Assist nurses with basic patient care
Avg Salary $37,190 $30,290
Proj Job Growth 18% 8%
Location Physician offices, hospitals, outpatient clinics Nursing homes, residential care facilities, hospitals
Typical Hours Full-time Full-time typically including night shifts, holidays, & weekends
Training Required Depends on the facility. Some require certifications. Completion of an approved training program & certification
Skills Needed Communication, attention to detail, quick learner, computer skills, customer service Communication, physical ability, compassion, flexibility, problem-solving


Medical Assistant Overview

Simply put, medical assistants are healthcare workers who assist other staff with administrative and clinical duties. 

Some typical responsibilities of an MA include:

  • Answering phone calls
  • Scheduling patient appointments
  • Performing basic clinical testing
  • Taking patient vitals, such as weight and blood pressure
  • Assisting physicians during patient exams
  • Recording patient information into electronic health record
  • Communication with patients regarding care
  • Collecting specimen samples for laboratory testing

Becoming a medical assistant usually requires completing a training program and sometimes passing a certification exam. Many states/facilities have no certification requirements, but it can still be helpful for securing a job.

Medical assistants work in healthcare settings such as hospitals, physician private practices, and outpatient care centers. They typically work full-time in order to best support the needs of other healthcare staff. 

Certified Nursing Assistant Overview

Certified nursing assistants are healthcare workers who provide support for nurses. They work with patients and provide them with care during their stay at a nursing facility or hospital.

Some typical responsibilities of a CNA include:

  • Taking and recording patient vitals
  • Assisting patients with personal care (such as grooming, bathing, and using the restroom)
  • Monitoring and documenting patients’ health concerns
  • Feeding patients
  • Moving and repositioning patients
  • Maintaining the cleanliness and organization of patients’ rooms

In order to become a certified nursing assistant, you typically need to complete an approved nursing assistant program and pass a competency exam. Once these requirements are fulfilled, you can be placed on the state registry, which allows you to work as a certified nursing assistant. 

CNAs mostly work in inpatient settings such as hospitals or nursing homes full-time, though there may be part-time work available as well. Schedules vary, as patients need care all throughout the day. It’s also not uncommon to work during holidays or weekends. 

Key Similarities Between Medical Assistants & Certified Nursing Assistants

There are many similarities between medical assistants and certified nursing assistants. Here are some of the key ones:

  • Relatively few education requirements: Compared with other healthcare careers that require a bachelor’s degree or more, the path to becoming an MA or CNA is a lot more streamlined. Both generally only require completing a training program and, possibly, passing a certification exam.
  • Responsibilities: There is some overlap in certain responsibilities. For example, both MAs and CNAs can perform tasks such as taking patient vitals and recording information into the patient electronic health record.
  • Supportive role: Both MAs and CNAs play an important role in assisting other healthcare workers. Their hard work helps everything run more smoothly, so that everyone can focus on providing the absolute best care for patients. 

Key Differences Between Medical Assistants & Certified Nursing Assistants

There are also many differences between medical assistants and certified nursing assistants. Here are some of the key ones. 

  • Physical effort: CNAs often need to exert a significant amount of physical effort to do their job. Moving and repositioning patients, in particular, requires a good amount of strength. They will also spend a large portion of their day standing up and walking around. 
  • Amount of direct patient care: Although both MAs and CNAs interact with patients, CNAs are more heavily involved in direct patient care. They perform essential tasks such as moving, feeding, and grooming patients. 
  • Workplace environment: Medical assistants are more likely to work in outpatient settings like private practices or outpatient clinics. In contrast, certified nursing assistants are more likely to work in inpatient settings such as nursing homes or hospitals.  
  • Degree of autonomy: Both MAs and CNAs work under the close supervision of other healthcare staff. However, certified nursing assistants enjoy a greater degree of autonomy in performing their job responsibilities. Medical assistants will typically find themselves working under the close direction of other staff. 

Medical Assistant & Certified Nursing Assistant Salary & Job Growth Comparison

Both medical assistants and certified nursing assistants have a relatively positive job outlook, with jobs expected to increase at an above-average rate over the next decade. This means that there should be plenty of open positions available in the near future. 

Medical Assistants

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the 2021 annual median salary for medical assistants was $37,190, which comes out to $17.88 per hour. The job outlook is positive, with MA jobs expected to increase by 18% over the next decade. 

Some opportunities for advancement include getting involved in leadership, teaching, or taking on more specialized roles. Other paths will require further education, meaning, at the very least, completing a four-year degree. These paths include becoming a registered nurse or physician assistant.

Certified Nursing Assistants

For certified nursing assistants, the BLS reports that the 2021 annual median salary was $30,290, which comes out to $14.56 per hour. The job outlook is lower than MAs, with CNA jobs expected to increase by 8% over the next decade. 

Some opportunities for advancement include becoming involved in leadership or taking on more specialized roles in the workplace. In some states, for example, CNAs can become certified medication aides, allowing them to dispense medication for patients.

Other opportunities for advancement will require a significant amount of additional education. This means, at the very least, completing a two or four-year degree. These paths include becoming a registered nurse or nurse practitioner. 

Training & Education Requirements for MAs & CNAs

Each of these careers have their own education and training requirements. Keep in mind that requirements may vary depending on which state you plan to work in.  

There are typically no formal educational and training requirements for becoming a medical assistant. Education for medical assistants usually involves completing a training program at a postsecondary educational institution, such as community college or vocational school, or an online program. Costs for medical assistant programs range from $2,000 to $60,000 depending on the program you choose.

>> Note: If you’re interested in becoming a medical assistant, you may want to check out Stepful’s 4-Month Online Medical Assistant Training Program

Organizations, such as the American Association of Medical Assistants, provide certification. Graduating from an accredited program and passing a certification exam allow you to become a certified medical assistant.

The length of medical assistant programs can vary. They typically take around four months to two years to finish, depending on the program. 

However, in many states, medical assistants are not required to be certified. In fact, some people are hired as medical assistants with only a high school diploma. That being said, employers tend to prefer certified applicants who have completed some sort of training program. 

To become a certified nursing assistant, you will need a license or certification issued by the state in which you are practicing. This process usually involves finishing an approved nursing assistant program and passing a competency exam.

Certified nursing assistant programs are usually around six to 12 weeks long. The goal of these programs is to provide you with experience and prepare you for the competency exam. Exams are typically made up of two sections: a knowledge-based section and a practical skills portion.

Then, you will need to complete a background check and get placed on your state’s certified nursing assistant registry. In some states, you may need to satisfy continuing education (CE) requirements to maintain your certification.

Comparing a Day in the Life for Medical Assistants & Certified Nursing Assistants

When deciding whether to become a medical assistant or certified nursing assistant, it is helpful to imagine what a typical workday would look like. 

According to the BLS, 57% of medical assistants work in physician offices. Hospitals are the second most common workplace environment, with 15% of medical assistants working there. 

In a typical 8-to-10-hour shift, medical assistants will perform a variety of clinical and administrative tasks. They may take a patient’s vitals and enter that information into the electronic health record. Then, they may answer a phone call to help schedule a patient’s next appointment. 

Certified nursing assistants typically work in inpatient settings. According to the BLS, 37% of certified nursing assistants work in skilled nursing facilities. Hospitals are the second most common work environment, with 30% of CNAs working there.

CNAs may work at any time of the day and at any time of the year. For example, they may be scheduled to work night shifts or during holidays and weekends. They typically work 8- or 12-hour shifts. 

In a typical shift at a nursing home, they can expect to multitask as they provide care for multiple patients. They work closely with nurses to ensure that the patients are well taken care of and that any health concerns are reported and documented. 

They will spend most of their day standing up and walking around as they perform their duties. For example, the CNA may need to feed a patient, help them use the restroom, then report back to the supervising nurse.

Other Healthcare Career Comparisons

Here are some other career comparisons we've written that may help you decide which is best for you:

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