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

Are you interested in a healthcare career? Are you intrigued by working alongside physicians and surgeons in life-and-death situations? Or maybe you want to help ...

Are you interested in a healthcare career considering a path with MA versus CNA? A Medical Assistant and a Certified Nursing Assistant comparison can seem confusing until you fully understand their roles in health care. Are you intrigued by working alongside physicians and surgeons in a variety of situations? Or maybe you want to help people in any way you can. The medical field has so many job opportunities it can be challenging to figure out where to begin. And where you start doesn't have to be where you end up. It's common for anyone in the medical field to progress over time as they gain experience. Those with a true passion for healthcare thrive on learning and growing as professionals. Plus, who doesn't want a pay increase occasionally?

A healthcare career might sound fantastic, but spending years in college might not sound as exciting or even be possible for you. This can be especially true for nontraditional students who may have taken a few years off school to work or serve in the military. Earning an associate degree to become a registered nurse can take two years, and getting a Bachelor of Science degree in a field like nursing can take four years or more to achieve. You may need additional training, depending on the specialty you want to study.

Thankfully, there are entry-level healthcare jobs that take considerably less time. An entry-level job is a perfect way to get your foot in the door and start working. Your hard work and dedication can be your biggest asset over time as you work hard to progress your career. Several positions are considered entry-level, but two of the more popular choices are a Medical Assistant (MA) and a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA).

Deciding between a MA and a CNA career shouldn't be a difficult decision for you once you understand the role of each. They are quite different roles, and many prospective students find they lean one way or the other, depending on their skills and personality and where they want their healthcare career to go.

Job Duties

The easiest way to showcase the roles of a Medical Assistant and a Certified Nursing Assistant is to describe the role of each one in a healthcare setting.

Medical Assistants specialize in two different aspects of healthcare – administrative and patient care. The role of a Medical Assistant is diverse. First, MAs are trained to perform administrative duties like checking in patients, working with insurance companies, making supplies requests, and maintaining charts and other essential documents. This skill is instrumental in a busy clinic or office where there are patients to check-in and records to keep.

Medical Assistants perform several tasks on the patient side, like checking vital signs, administering injections, drawing blood, and assisting physicians. They are trained to do many of the tasks that a physician performs. Physicians love hard-working Medical Assistants because their work allows the physician time to handle more pressing tasks. Medical Assistants work across a broad range of facilities, from busy hospitals to smaller outpatient clinics with only a few patients.

On the other hand, Certified Nursing Assistants work solely with patients. Their duties include: 

  • Assisting patients with various tasks like eating, bathing, changing bedding, etc. 
  • Checking vital signs 
  • Communicating their patients' health concerns to nurses
Skills Needed

There are some similarities when it comes to a CNA versus an MA. Both require basic healthcare knowledge, dedication, good communication skills, and a positive attitude. Both positions require someone compassionate and concerned about the care and well-being of patients under their supervision.

But because of the difference in duties, there are some skills required in each position that could be helpful in your new career. Medical Assistants should be adept at:

  • Using technology to schedule appointments
  • Measuring vital signs using medical equipment 
  • Administering medications 
  • Phlebotomy (drawing blood) 
  • Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) training 
  • Experience using an Electrocardiogram (EKG) machine.
Some Medical Assistants choose to specialize in phlebotomy or EKG training. Both are high-demand fields of healthcare that are growing every year.

Certified Nursing Assistants should have strong skills in: 

  • Activities of Daily Living (ADL) assistance 
  • Checking vital signs 
  • Home healthcare assistance 
  • Patient bathing, grooming, and care 
  • Physical therapy 
  • Patient charts/keeping records

CNAs must have a good personality, patience, and a willingness to help those in need. They also need the physical stamina to lift and move patients when needed and stay on their feet all day.

Employment Opportunities

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, most Medical Assistants work in clinics. They also work in hospitals, outpatient facilities, or chiropractic offices, typically places that deal with short-term care. Medical Assistants usually work at offices with regular working hours, Monday through Friday. However, there are some positions with overnight shifts and holiday requirements.

Many CNAs find employment at nursing homes or assisted living facilities, where the demand is high and the pay is competitive. CNAs often work with patients who need long-term care. Hospitals employ more CNAs than MAs on average, according to the bureau. CNAs can work around the clock in a hospital setting with lots of overtime, weekend, and holiday shifts. CNAs can also work in home healthcare, traveling from site to site.

Education Requirements

It won't take four years to become an MA or a CNA, as we mentioned earlier. Medical Assistants don't need a postsecondary degree, but most employers prefer candidates who have gone through a training program. Programs teach anatomy and medical terminology that gives a good foundation of knowledge to start your healthcare career. Many choose to earn their MA certification to advance their careers. There are trade schools where you can receive training in less than a year. The MA program at Austin Career Institute takes 10 months to complete.

If you want to become a CNA, you must first be certified, so the initial step is to learn through a state-approved program and then receive on-the-job training. To become a CNA, you must pass a state exam.


Never choose a career path based on salary alone. It should be about the best fit for you and if you will enjoy the work. But it is essential to know what you can expect to earn at a new job. Thankfully, both an MA and a CNA are good-paying jobs.

Medical Assistants are in demand at a higher pace than the national average. As the American population gets older, the need for MAs continues to rise. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures predict an 8-9 percent growth by 2030. The median annual wage is around $35,850 for a fully trained licensed MA. (To be licensed, you must take the certification exam.) Newer Medical Assistants can earn a little less than that, while those with experience should earn more than that figure.

Certified Nursing Assistants are also in need and are expected to continue growing by about 8 percent by 2030. On average, CNAs made approximately $30,850 in 2020. According to the bureau, those working in a hospital setting earned slightly more - $32,160 per year – and those working for the government made a median of $37,240.