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San Joaquin Valley College Blog

Medical Assistant vs CNA, Choosing the Right Career Path for You

January 13, 2022

Medical Assistant vs CNA, Choosing the Right Career Path for YouPeople can be drawn to health care professions for a wide variety of reasons. Maybe they are drawn in by a love of helping others, an interest in science, or a passion for working directly with patients. Or perhaps they are looking for stability in a fast-paced and fast-growing industry, as health care occupations are projected to grow 16% between 2020 and 2030, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

While many health care professions can take years of study to enter, training to become a medical assistant or certified nursing assistant can provide some of the benefits and fulfillment of working in health care without advanced degrees. CNAs and medical assistants—sometimes shortened to MAs—are entry-level health care workers that do not need to hold a four-year degree. 

Choosing between becoming a medical assistant vs a CNA doesn’t have to be hard. Learn the differences and find the right path for you. 

What is a Medical Assistant?

Medical assistants are a critical part of a patient care team, working alongside physicians in a variety of settings. Medical assistants may work in both administrative and clinical capacities, helping patients schedule appointments, prepare for procedures, and generally feel more at ease. 

What is a CNA?

A CNA, or certified nursing assistant, works under the supervision of nurses to help patients. They often work in residential care settings like nursing homes or hospitals. CNAs may help patients with basic activities, such as moving, eating, dressing, and hygiene. 

Medical Assistant vs CNA Side-by-Side Comparison

It’s natural to still think medical assistants and CNAs do similar jobs. In part, that’s because they do. Both medical assistants and CNAs work to support more advanced medical professionals. Both work directly with patients but also complete supporting work outside of clinical care. When choosing between medical assisting and nurse assisting, it’s important to compare day-by-day activities. 

Medical Assistant vs CNA Job Duties

Working as either a medical assistant or a CNA likely means dealing with patients. Below are some common job duties for both fields. 

Medical AssistantCNATaking medical historiesAnswering call buttons to address patient requestsExplaining treatment procedures and preparing patients for examsKeeping patient rooms sanitaryAssisting a physician with examinationsHelping patients eat or drinkPreparing and administering medications (as allowed by the state)Helping patients move, including in and out of bedAnswering phones, scheduling appointments, and managing records and billingAssisting with personal hygiene


Medical Assistant vs CNA Work Settings

As both medical assistants and CNAs work in health care, it’s no surprise that their jobs take them to different medical settings. The main difference is that more medical assistants work in ambulatory settings like physicians offices, whereas CNAs work in residential facilities like nursing care communities or home health services. 

The BLS reports that the following are the largest employers of each profession as of May 2020. 

Medical Assistant EmployersCNA Employers
Offices of physicians 57%Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities) 37%
Hospitals; state, local, and private 15%Hospitals; state, local, and private 30%
Outpatient care centers 8%Continuing care retirement communities and assisted living facilities for the elderly 11%
Offices of chiropractors 4%Home healthcare services 6%
Government 4%


Medical Assistant vs CNA Education and Training

Both medical assistants and nursing assistants can enter the workforce without a four-year degree. According to the BLS, most medical assistants have a postsecondary education award such as a certificate. The BLS continues, reporting that there are no formal education requirements to become a medical assistant, but that “employers may prefer to hire assistants who have completed these programs.” Medical Assisting programs may result in a certificate and take less than a year, depending on program outcomes. These programs typically include classroom and laboratory portions that include lessons in anatomy and medical terminology.

Nursing assistants typically must complete a state-approved education program and pass their state’s competency exam, according to the BLS. Nursing assistants often need a state-issued license or certification. While licensing requirements vary by state, they typically require attending an approved educational program and then passing an exam. Some states have other requirements as well, such as continuing education and a criminal background check. Check with state boards of nursing or health for more information.

Medical Assistant vs CNA Job Growth

Both medical and nursing assistants benefit from the growing health care field, though the job outlook for medical assistants is a bit rosier. According to the BLS, employment of medical assistants is projected to grow 18% from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations. Comparatively, employment of nursing assistants and orderlies is projected to grow 8% in the same period, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

Which Should I Choose, Medical Assisting or Clinical Nursing Assisting?

The choice to become a medical assistant or a clinical nursing assistant is a personal one. Both careers allow you to work with others, but day-to-day activities vary. Additionally, nursing assistants may need more formal training to gain licensure. 

If you want to learn more about the path to becoming a medical assistant, read our Career Guide On Medical Assisting in California.

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