Medical Assisting

What is the Difference Between a Medical Assistant vs. a CNA?

The difference between a medical assistant vs. a CNA

It can be easy to confuse a medical assistant with a certified nursing assistant, or CNA. Although both professions fill important roles in the healthcare field, they’re also different in fundamental ways.

To better understand the differences, we’ll take a closer look at various aspects of these professions, including the typical job responsibilities of each, as well as their education and training requirements.

Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU) is dedicated to preparing students for careers in healthcare and offers flexible programs to become a medical assistant. If you’re thinking about becoming a medical assistant or CNA, the following information can help you understand which direction may be a better fit for you.

Medical assistants may perform a wide range of duties

What does a medical assistant do?

As the name indicates, this healthcare professional assists medical doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and other healthcare providers in settings like clinics and medical offices.

Medical Assistants are on the front lines of helping people.

Medical assistants may perform a wide range of duties on a daily basis such as:

  • Escorting patients to the examination room
  • Measuring vital signs
  • Assisting with medical examinations, procedures, and minor surgery
  • Administering injections of medications and vaccines
  • Drawing blood
  • Applying dressings and bandaging
  • Performing wound care
  • Sterilizing and disinfecting medical instruments and equipment
  • Performing limited laboratory testing
  • Collecting and preparing laboratory specimens

In addition, medical assistants may carry out various administrative responsibilities involving things like:

  • Medical coding
  • Electronic medical records
  • Insurance coding
  • Billing
  • Scheduling
  • Office management

What does a CNA do?

CNAs typically work under the supervision of nurses and devote most of their time to providing hands-on care to patients in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and hospitals.

This generally involves assisting patients with activities of daily living, such as the following:

  • Eating
  • Bathing
  • Dressing
  • Toileting
  • Moving or turning immobile patients

Note that some of these tasks can be physically demanding and involve lifting patients.

CNAs do not perform many of the tasks that medical assistants do (see above). They may, however, record weight and height and take patient vital signs such as body temperature, pulse, and blood pressure.

CNAs are also expected to share patient concerns with nurses and inform nurses of any patient health issues they notice.

Medical assistants typically must complete a formal training program.

What training and education does a medical assistant need?

Medical assistants typically must complete a formal training program to obtain the appropriate diploma, certificate, or associate degree.

NWHSU, for example, offers two programs for medical assistant students. They can pursue a Medical Assisting diploma or an Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree in Medical Assisting.

Note that both programs include the diploma in medical assisting, which gives you the opportunity to start working as a medical assistant within approximately a year. (See below for more information on length of education time.)

Typically, a high school diploma or GED is the only prerequisite to enroll in a medical assistant program, although programs may require a minimum cumulative GPA and a background check.

Here are related considerations:

Certification. Medical assistants are sometimes referred to as CMAs—the C standing for “certified.” (Just like the C in CNA, though the path to certification is different.)

Most employers prefer or even require medical assistants to be certified. To do that, you must pass the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) certification exam.

Before you can sit for the AAMA exam, you must graduate from a medical assistant program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs.

For example, at NWHSU the Medical Assisting diploma program is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs upon the recommendation of the Medical Assisting Education Review Board.

The CMA designation is a nationwide certification, which means you won’t have to get recertified if you move to another state.

Length of time for education. Depending on the ultimate credential you earn, it can take around one to two years to complete a medical assistant program.

NWHSU’s Medical Assisting diploma takes one year, or three trimesters. Our A.A.S. degree in Medical Assisting takes five trimesters, which equates to 20 months.

Your actual completion time will take longer if you opt to take courses on a part-time basis. On the other hand, it may take you less time if you have credits that transfer.

Courses and training. Specific course requirements will vary from one program to another. To give you an idea of the classes you’ll take to become a medical assistant, here’s an overview from NWHSU:

  • Courses and lab activities related to medical assistant duties such as taking vital signs, providing wound care, administering injections, and assisting with examinations and procedures.
  • Introductory level courses and lab activities in microbiology, hematology, immunology, and pharmacology, with an emphasis on how they relate to medical assistant practices like taking specimens, drawing blood, and running basic lab tests.
  • Classroom coursework on administrative duties, procedural requirements, and electronic healthcare records, as well as on professionalism and cultural sensitivity.
  • Training during internship in an actual clinical setting.

For more detailed information, check out this curriculum list, which also includes course descriptions.

To learn firsthand what it’s like to be a medical assistant student, check out this video.

What training and education does a CNA need?

CNAs typically must earn a certificate or diploma from an approved CNA program. According to, “Community colleges, vocational schools, and organizations like the American Red Cross offer CNA programs.”

A high school diploma or GED is usually the only prerequisite to enroll in a CNA program, although programs may require a minimum cumulative GPA and carry out a background check.

Here are related considerations if you’re looking into becoming a CNA:

Certification. Once you complete your CNA training, you’ll need to take a certification exam. explains, “Once you pass the exam, you’ll be placed on a state registry as a CNA, licensed nursing assistant, or other similar title, depending on the state. Then you’ll be ready to work.”

Length of time for education. CNA programs take around four to twelve weeks to complete.

Courses and training. To get a sense of your possible CNA education, the following is a breakdown of the major topics covered in the Red Cross’s Nurse Assistant Training Program:

  • CPR/FA/AED (cardiopulmonary resuscitation, first aid, automated external defibrillator)
  • Infection control
  • How to take vital signs
  • Range of motion exercises
  • How to be a valuable and adaptable employee
  • Communication, teamwork and diversity skills for the workplace
  • Important skills and techniques necessary to be a successful CNA

According to, CNA students also receive training in:

  • Proper body mechanics when helping a patient
  • Safe transfer and lifting procedures for patients
  • Maintenance of a safe and clean environment

What is the job outlook for medical assistants?

Although there are no guarantees when it comes to gaining employment, the current demand for medical assistants in the Twin Cities and surrounding areas is very high.

Current demand around the Twin Cities area is very high.

Robin Galloway, Faculty and Clinical Coordinator for NWHSU’s Medical Assisting Programs, is in regular contact with healthcare employers in the region. “Based on what they tell me, the need for medical assistants is greater than I’ve ever seen it before.” She says she’s also seeing sign-on bonuses being offered for medical assistant positions.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects a 19 percent growth rate for medical assistants between 2019-2029—nearly five times the average growth rate for all occupations.

That’s likely just one reason why the medical assistant profession appears on three different “Best Job” lists from U.S. News & World Report.

The medical assistant profession appears on several “Best Job” lists.

For related information, see also A Medical Assistant’s Salary: Expert Insights to Help Understand the Numbers AND the Profession.

What is the job outlook for CNAs?

According to the BLS, the job growth rate over the next decade for CNAs is expected to be 8 percent, which is promising considering that the average rate for all occupations is 4 percent.

Similar to the medical assistant profession, the need for CNAs will continue to grow as the baby boomer generation grows older.

What hours does a medical assistant work?

Though there are definitely exceptions, medical assistants often work in clinic or medical office settings that operate during regular daytime hours only. That means you’re much more likely to enjoy having weekends, evenings, and holidays off as a medical assistant.

Also, medical assistants generally have plenty of opportunities for part-time positions.

Features like these make the profession a great option for parents trying to accommodate the needs of their family.

What hours does a CNA work?

CNAs are generally needed around the clock, which means they may not only work daytime hours and evenings but also weekends, overnight shifts, and holidays.

Seize the opportunity to establish a rewarding career in healthcare

So which path is right for you? To help in your decision making, you may want to ask yourself questions like these:

  • Which profession lets me do the type of work that appeals to me more?
  • How much training and education do I want to pursue right now?
  • How much training and education am I able to pursue right now?
  • How much does the training and education cost, and will I need financial aid?
  • What are both my short-term and long-term professional goals—and which profession seems to work better with them?

One way to begin answering these questions is to find out more about the training programs available to you. A great place to start is with NWHSU, which offers two flexible paths to becoming a medical assistant.

Maybe a medical assistant path is a great choice for you—or maybe a CNA path is better for you. Either way, you can take a helpful first step by contacting us and getting information that can ultimately help you make a decision that’s in your best interest.

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