What’s the Difference Between a Medical Assistant and a Nursing Assistant (CNA)?

How to choose the right healthcare career training program for you

Have you ever considered a career in healthcare? If you don’t know anything about healthcare, it may sound like a stretch for you. But did you know there are many healthcare careers you can do without a college degree? Did you know that there are many healthcare jobs that can be trained for in less than one year? In other words, beginning a career in healthcare could be within your reach.

This article looks at two such jobs: the professional medical assistant and the nursing assistant (CNA). We will look at each career choice and how can you get started down the road to one of these careers.

What is the difference between a medical assistant and a nursing assistant?

Medical assistants and nursing assistants share a lot of similarities, in that they both play important roles in the healthcare system by providing patients with the care they need. Let’s look at some of the factors that set them apart.

Where they work

Most medical assistants work in doctors’ offices and hospitals. They might report directly to the doctor, or they might report to an office manager or other member of the healthcare team. Their role is considered part of the medical team (not the nursing team). Medical assistants can work in a variety of specialties too, such as pediatrics offices, cardiology offices, ophthalmologists’ offices, and so forth.

Nursing assistants most often work in nursing care facilities and continuing care retirement communities. They may also work in hospitals. They are considered part of the nursing staff, and typically report to a head nurse. Most nursing assistant positions are working with older patients or residents of nursing homes. Because most of the patients live in nursing facilities for long periods of time, nursing assistants have the opportunity to develop close relationships with their patients.


Medical assistants often work in doctors’ offices, which tend to have weekday hours, as well as some additional hours on evenings and weekends. For medical assistants who work in hospitals, they may need to take overnight shifts, weekend hours, or holiday shifts, since hospitals are open around the clock.

Nursing assistants’ shifts often include evening, weekend, holiday, and overnight hours, because nursing and residential facilities are always open. Facilities like these need to have staffing around-the-clock.

What medical assistants and nursing assistants do

Medical assistants are trained to perform a variety of administrative and medical procedures that help keep the day’s appointments running on time. Their on-the-job responsibilities might include:

  • Greeting patients and assigning them to exam rooms
  • Taking vital signs (blood pressure, pulse, weight, temperature)
  • Recording patient histories
  • Assisting the doctor with minor office procedures
  • Calling in prescription refills
  • Processing specimens to be sent to the lab
  • Helping to schedule patient appointments
  • Assisting with administrative duties

Nursing assistants are trained to provide basic care to patients and nursing home residents. Basic care refers to the daily functions of living, like eating and bathing. On a typical day, a nursing assistant might

  • Measure vital signs
  • Help a resident with personal hygiene
  • Assist a resident with eating
  • Assist residents who have Alzheimer’s or other cognitive issues
  • Help to transfer a patient from bed to wheelchair
  • Provide social and emotional support
  • Change bedding or refresh linens

How to become a medical assistant or nursing assistant

To enroll in a training program for medical assistants or nursing assistants, you don’t need any prior experience or degree. Most programs ask you to fill out an application form and require that you have a high school diploma or equivalent (like a GED). You will also need to attend an interview so that the school knows you are committed to getting trained in your new career path.

Medical assistant training takes a little less than one year to complete. You will be learning everything from human anatomy and physiology to pharmacology and advanced clinical skills, such as drawing blood and administering injections. If this sounds overwhelming, don’t worry! Instructors know that you are a beginner, and they take you step-by-step through everything. You will get plenty of practice that will boost your skills and your confidence.

Nursing assistant training typically takes about three months to complete. In the program, you learn how to provide basic care for patients, how to handle emergencies, and the importance of compassion in nursing. After your training, most states also require that you take a certification exam and register for a license.

How is the job outlook?

The job outlook for medical assistants is strong. The Occupational Outlook Handbook (U.S. Department of Labor) predicts that, “Employment of medical assistants is projected to grow 29 percent from 2016 to 2026, much faster than the average for all occupations.” This positive prediction is based on the fact that the large baby boomer generation is aging and requiring more preventative services and medical services.

The job outlook for nursing assistants is also positive. The Occupational Outlook Handbook (U.S. Department of Labor) predicts that, “Employment of nursing assistants is projected to grow 11 percent from 2016 to 2026, faster than the average for all occupations.” The aging baby boom population is also a factor in this positive job growth prediction.

How much do medical assistants and nursing assistants make?

The salary for both of these professions will vary depending on location, facility, and your years of experience. Both are considered entry level positions, but because medical assistants have more training and more responsibilities, they typically earn more than nursing assistants. Visit the “pay” section of the Occupational Outlook Handbook to learn more about how much medical assistants make and how much nursing assistants make.

Difference Between a Medical Assistant and Nursing Assistant

Medical Assistant

Nursing Assistant

Where they work

Mostly doctors’ offices, some hospitalsMostly nursing care facilities, some hospitals


Doctor’s office: Hours include weekday and daytime hours, with some weekends or evenings

Hospital: Shifts can include weekdays, weekends, nights, and holidays

Nursing facilities and hospitals: Shifts can include weekdays, weekends, nights, and holidays


    • Measure vital signs
    • Take patient histories
    • Process specimens
    • Assist doctors
    • Update patient records
    • Measure vital signs
    • Help patients with bathing and hygiene
    • Assist patients with eating
    • Provide emotional support
    • Change linens

Patient interaction

Variety of patients; variety of reasons for office visitMainly older patients; get to know patients over longer periods

Requirements to enroll in training

High school diploma (or equivalent)High school diploma (or equivalent)

Length of training

About one yearAbout 3 months

Job Outlook


For more information on these fields, see these articles:

5 Things to Know about Becoming a Medical Assistant

5 Things to Know about Becoming a Nurses’ Aide

The decision to attend a medical assistant training program or a nursing assistant training program is an important one! We hope this article has helped you understand the differences and similarities between these two important professions.

This article was provided by Seacoast Career Schools. If you are looking for medical assisting schools in Sanford, Maine, Seacoast could be your answer! We offer a medical assistant training program that can be completed in less than one year. By next year at this time, you could be on your way to a new career path!

For more information, call us at (800)-758-7679, or fill out the Seacoast Online Information Request Form. Or better yet, schedule a tour of Seacoast and come see us in action!

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