If you’re thinking about pursuing a medical profession, you may be considering becoming a medical assistant or a nurse.
Both are careers with a good job outlook where you get to work with patients in a fast-paced environment. But how do you decide which path to choose?
A medical assistant usually works in a doctor's office or outpatient clinic. They have both administrative and clinical duties including taking vital signs, obtaining health histories, and scheduling appointments.
Most nurses work in hospitals, but can also find jobs in surgical centers, clinics, home health, and care centers. Nurses are responsible for performing independent assessments of their patients, giving medications, and performing some procedures.
There are also differences between the two when it comes to education and training requirements, schedules, and salary.
This guide will go over the similarities and differences between medical assistants and nurses to help you decide which career is best for you.
Medical Assistant vs Nurses Overview
Though both are medical professions, there are key differences and similarities between medical assistants and nurses.
Medical assistants and nurses both work as part of a healthcare team. They are both responsible for helping patients reach their highest level of health and keeping them safe in the healthcare environment. Both must pay attention to minor changes and understand what to do in a health-related emergency.
Nurses have a broader scope of practice than medical assistants. Nurses can perform all of the tasks that medical assistants do, in addition to a few more advanced skills.
Medical assistants do not have to go through as much training as nurses and do not have to be licensed. Because of this, nurses make substantially more money than medical assistants. Nurses are also more likely to have to work nights, holidays, and weekends.
>> Read More: Medical Assistant Scope of Practice by State
Medical Assistant Overview
Medical assistants—sometimes referred to as medical assistant technicians—work under the license of a physician in an office or clinic.
Some common responsibilities of medical assistants include:
- Schedule appointments
- Maintain accurate health records
- Take vital signs
- Give medications
- Help with prescription refills
- Clean and prepare examination rooms
- Handle billing
- Assist with in-office procedures
It is possible to become a medical assistant with no certifications or experience. However, most employers prefer to hire certified medical assistants.
To become a certified medical assistant, you must complete an accredited training program lasting between 4 months to 2 years and pass a certification exam. There are a few different types of medical assistant certifications available.
Medical assistants usually work in family practice offices, outpatient clinics, and specialty doctors offices. They generally work normal business hours during the week. Most medical assistants work between 8 to 10 hours per day.
Medical assisting has an expected growth rate of 16% in the next few years, more than double the national average. This high demand for medical assistants means it is relatively easy to find a job anywhere in the country for a decent salary.
It's worth noting that many medical assistants go on to become registered nurses. This requires going back to school and typically takes a few years.
Most nurses are registered nurses working in hospitals. They have a larger scope of practice than a medical assistant, but require much more training.
Here are some common responsibilities of nurses:
- Perform assessments
- Give medications
- Insert IVs, catheters, and feeding tubes
- Wound care
- Maintain accurate charting records
Nurses generally work in hospitals and work 12 hour shifts. They work nights, weekends, and holidays, often on a rotating schedule.
They usually take care of 1 to 6 patients at a time during their shift, depending on how sick the patients are. They are responsible for interpreting vital signs and assessment data, and monitoring patients responses to different medications.
Key Similarities Between Medical Assistants & Nurses
Medical assistants and nurses do share some similarities within the healthcare industry, including:
- Caring for patients. Both nurses and medical assistants need to be compassionate and kind. They both care for people during vulnerable times in their lives, and should be able to treat everyone with respect and kindness.
- Dealing with bodily fluids. Both jobs require dealing with many different bodily fluids including blood, vomit, and urine.
- Infection control. Medical assistants and nurses both must have a good understanding of infection control. They may come in contact with infectious diseases and need to protect themselves as well as other patients.
- Job outlook. Both career choices have a great growth outlook, with medical assistants being the best.
- Need to understand medical terminology. Both LPNs and MAs need to understand basic medical terminology so they understand what coworkers are saying and can communicate well with patients.
Key Differences Between Medical Assistants & Nurses
Although they are both part of the healthcare team, there are some key differences between the two jobs, including:
- Licensing. Nurses are required to hold a nursing license to legally work. They often have to do additional training after they are licensed depending on the unit they work in. Medical assistants can begin work without any training or experience.
- Pay. Nurses make close to twice as much money as medical assistants.
- Scope of practice. Nurses have a larger scope of practice, meaning they are allowed to perform more tasks and have more responsibility than a medical assistant.
- Schedule. Most nurses work three 12 hour shifts per week including nights and weekends. Most medical assistants work 4 or 5 days a week during normal business hours.
Medical Assistant & Nurses Salary & Job Growth Comparison
Both types of healthcare providers have good job growth, career advancement opportunities, and decent salaries. However, there are significant differences in pay between the two jobs.
Registered nurses in the United States earn $77,600 per year, on average. Medical assistants earn $37,190 per year, on average.
Job opportunities for nurses are expected to grow by 6% through the year 2030. Medical assisting job opportunities are expected to grow by 16% in the same time.
Both medical assistants and nurses have opportunities to advance within their field. Medical assistants can become leaders and instructors for medical assisting. Nurses can advance to higher paying specialties like flight nursing.
Both jobs are good starts for advancing careers through higher education. Medical assistants often continue on in school to become nurses. Nurses may return to school to become midwives or nurse practitioners.
Education & Certification Requirements for Medical Assistants & Nurses
Training and education requirements vary greatly between medical assistants and nurses.
Medical assistants can secure a job and start working immediately after high school graduation or earning their GED. They may choose to become certified medical assistants, which requires going through an accredited program and takes between four months and two years.
Nurses must earn at least an associate degree in nursing and pass a licensing exam before they can look for a job as a registered nurse. Accelerated programs can be finished in two years and some bachelors programs rake as long as six years to complete. Many nursing jobs require unit specific training and certifications beyond their nursing degree.
Many nursing students will work as a medical assistant while in school to help them gain clinical experience that can help them get a job later on.
Comparing a Day in the Life for Medical Assistants & Nurses
While medical assistants and nurses both take care of patients and work closely with physicians, job responsibilities can vary greatly between the two.
Medical assistants are likely to spend a lot of their day working on paperwork, answering phones, and completing office tasks. They also perform minimally invasive patient care like measuring vital signs and drawing blood. Medical assistants will generally care for healthy people needing a check up or patients who are mildly ill.
Medical assistants usually work only daytime hours, Monday through Friday. There are some evening and weekend jobs available for those who want them. Medical assistants might work four 10 hour shifts or five 8 hour shifts if they are full time employees.
Nurses will spend most of their time performing patient care. Some nurses spend most of their day administering intravenous medications and many spend significant time helping patients with basic activities like feeding themselves and getting to the toilet. Nurses are more likely to see sicker patients than medical assistants.
Nurses generally work three 12 hour shifts each week. Many hospitals require that the nurses take turns working weekends, holidays, and night shifts.
FAQs for Medical Assistants vs. Nurses
Do medical assistants or nurses make more?
Nurses make close to twice as much as medical assistants. Medical assistants average around $38,000 per year, while nurses make $77,000 per year.
How long does it take to become a medical assistant vs nurse?
You can become a medical assistant right away, or in as little as 4 months if you elect to go through a training program. It takes at least 2 years to become a nurse.
Is it harder to become a medical assistant or nurse?
Since nursing requires much more schooling, it is more difficult to become a medical assistant than a nurse.
What can a nurse do that a medical assistant can’t do?
Nurses can independently assess their patients, they can give more medications including IV medications, perform advanced wound care, and place invasive lines.
Is a medical assistant or nurse higher up?
A nurse has a wider scope of practice than a medical assistant. If they are working in the same clinic, the medical assistant would report to the nurse.
Is a medical assistant a nurse?
Medical assistants are not the same as registered nurses. Nurses must be licensed by the state that they work in, and it would be illegal to work as a nurse without a nursing license.
Can a medical assistant become a nurse?
A medical assistant can become a nurse if they complete a nursing program and pass their exam. Medical assisting is a great place to start for people wanting to eventually become a nurse.
Is a CMA higher than an RN?
A certified medical assistant is not higher than a registered nurse. A registered nurse has more medical education than a medical assistant.
Other Healthcare Career Comparisons
Here are some other career comparisons we've written that may help you decide which is best for you:
- Medical Assistant vs. Licensed Practical Nurse
- Medical Assistant vs. Phlebotomist
- Medical Assistant vs. Certified Nursing Assistant
- Medical Assistant vs. Patient Care Technician
- Medical Assistant vs. Medical Administrative Assistant
- Medical Assistant vs. Dental Assistant
- Medical Assistant vs. Physician Assistant
- Medical Assisting vs. Medical Coding & Billing
- Medical Assistant vs. Emergency Medical Technician
- Medical Assistant vs. Medical Lab Technician
- Medical Assistant vs. Certified Medical Assistant vs. Registered Medical Assistant
- Alternatives to a Medical Assistant Career