CNA vs. CMA: Which Career is Better for You?


Written By: Darby Faubion BSN, RN

Are you considering a career in healthcare? If so, are you trying to decide which career path is best for you? The healthcare industry is an ever-evolving field that offers a variety of career opportunities for people with different education levels. In this article, we are going to discuss the differences between CMA and CNA careers. By reviewing CNA vs CMA job duties, pay, and other factors, you can decide if either of these healthcare paths is a good fit for you.


1. CNA vs. CMA: Typical Job Duties


In this section, we will take an in-depth look at the difference between CNA and CMA (certified nursing assistant and certified medical assistant) job duties.

Certified Medical Assistants: The job duties of certified medical assistants vary, depending on each medical facility's guidelines, job description, and the specialty area of the health care professional that presides over patient care in that facility. CMA job duties may include both clinical and administrative tasks.

Some administrative responsibilities that certified medical assistants may perform include scheduling appointments, updating and maintaining medical records, and billing. Clinical and patient care duties may involve performing venipunctures to obtain blood specimens for laboratory testing, measuring and recording vital signs, performing EKGs, and assisting doctors or nurse practitioners with examinations.

Certified Nursing Assistants: CNAs work under the direction and supervision of licensed nursing professionals, such as licensed practical/vocational nurses and registered nurses. Certified nursing assistants typically provide hands-on direct patient care that is focused on basic care and comfort.

For instance, some CNA responsibilities include:

• bathe, dress, and feed patients as needed
• monitor and record vital signs and report to the nurse
• Keep the patient’s personal space clean (make beds, empty trash)
• Assist patients with transfers from bed to chair or wheelchair
• Assist with walking, as needed
• Some may provide transportation to and from medical appointments


2. Differences in Scope of Practice


Some states have statutes that address a certified medical assistant's scope of practice. However, many do not. In states where no regulatory guidance is in place, a CMAs scope of practice is typically determined by education, the comfort level of providers who are delegating tasks, and demonstration of clinical competency.

The scope of practice for certified nursing assistants is determined by state boards of nursing where the CNA is licensed to work. Activities that are typically covered in a CNA scope of practice include providing basic daily patient care, assist with movement such as transfers and mobility, monitoring nutritional intake and monitoring, and reporting patient vital signs.


3. Differences in Skills & Personality Traits Required to be Succeed


The skills and personality traits required to be successful as either a CMA or a CNA are quite similar.

• Excellent communication skills (verbal and nonverbal): As a CNA or CMA, it is essential to be able to understand and interpret the needs of patients and to communicate effectively with patients, their loved ones and other members of the healthcare team. Documentation of patient status such as vital signs or complaints, is an example of nonverbal communication.

• Compassion: Both nursing assistants and certified medical assistants may perform direct patient care. Being able to show compassion and empathy for how a patient feels and knowing how to respond with care will help foster a patient’s sense of well-being and foster healthy patient-caregiver relationships.

• Physical strength: The difference between CMA and CNA physical requirements vary, depending on assigned duties. Although some certified medical assistants may have administrative responsibilities, there are times when they are required to perform tasks such as moving patients or moving and operating heavy equipment. Certified nursing assistants spend a great deal of their time performing tasks that require some physical exertion. Some CNA jobs are less physically strenuous than others, but they still require physical strength and stamina.

• The ability to multitask: While there is some difference between the certified nursing assistant and certified medical assistant job responsibilities, the skills needed to perform both jobs are similar. For example, both positions require individuals to have good communication skills and to multitask. At times, both CMAs and CNAs may be required to accept additional tasks or be reassigned to a different patient or task in the middle of a shift or the need to care for multiple patients. Knowing how to determine which patients should be cared for or tasks should be completed first and how to complete all assigned tasks within a designated timeframe speaks well of both CMAs and CNAs.


4. CMA vs. CNA: What Education and Training is Required to Become?


If you are considering pursuing a career as a certified medical assistant or certified nursing assistant, it’s important to know the type of education or training programs required. To become a CMA or CNA, a minimum high school diploma or high school equivalency is the least education that is acceptable.

Most states require prospective CMAs to complete some type of formal educational training program. These programs typically include courses such as medical terminology, basic pharmacology, anatomy, insurance and coding classes, and laboratory techniques and procedures. While there are shorter classes available, some community colleges offer associate degree (two-year) programs to become a certified medical assistant.

To become a certified nursing assistant (CNA) in any state, you must have a high school diploma or high school equivalency and complete an accredited CNA training program. The training program must be approved by your state's board of nursing. Nursing assistant training programs vary in length from three to twelve weeks. The variation in program length is based on each state's requirements. Some states in the United States require at least 75 hours of training, while others require between 80 and 180 hours.

Certified nursing assistant programs typically instruct students on topics such as:

• Nutrition
• Personal care
• Body mechanics
• Activities of daily living
• Communication skills
• Safety and infection control
• Ethics and legal issues
• Medical terminology


5. Differences in Certification & Licensure Requirements


After completing a medical assistant program, medical assistants can pursue certification by taking a CMA Certification Examination. After becoming certified, medical assistants must renew their certification every five years. Currently, there are three major certifying agencies that offer medical assistant certification.

1. The American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA): One of the most widely recognized certifications for medical assistants is offered through the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). The examination covers material across a broad scope of information, including general, administrative, and clinical skills categories. The AAMA CMA exam includes four 40-minute segments of testing with a total of 200 multiple-choice questions.

2. The National Healthcareer Association offers the CCMA (Certified Clinical Medical Assistant) certification exam that consists of 30 practice questions and 150 scored questions. The examination takes approximately three hours to complete.

3. The National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT) administers the Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) certification.

Neither state licensure nor certification is required for a medical assistant to be employed. However, without certification and licensure, medical assistants may face restrictions on some of the tasks that can perform. For example, some states require medical assistants who take x-rays or who practice venipunctures (drawing blood) to be certified in those skills.

Upon completion of a certified nursing assistant program, nursing assistants must earn state nursing assistant certification before they can practice as a CNA. Candidates for certification must complete a state-approved program and have evidence that clinical hour requirements have been met. CNA competency examinations are designed to test a nursing assistant’s nursing skills and knowledge related to patient care.


6. How Long Does It Take to Become?


The path to becoming a CMA vs CNA varies. If you wish you to become a certified medical assistant, the two most popular options are:

1. Obtain an associate degree in medical assisting at an accredited school (This takes about two years to complete) or
2. Get a one-year certification through a technical school or community college.

Nursing assistant programs are shorter than certified medical assistant programs. They may last from four to twelve weeks, depending on the school. The training required for CNA certification includes classroom instruction and clinical training supervised by an instructor and/or preceptor at a nursing facility. Each state sets its own minimum practice guidelines and determines the number of classroom and clinical hours a nurse assistant student must complete before being eligible to take the certification examination.


7. How Much Does It Cost to Become?


The average cost of becoming a CMA is different, depending on the type of school you choose to attend. Additionally, the cost of books, tuition, supplies, and travel may impact your out of pocket expenses. On average, tuition fees for a certified medical assistant course range from $1,200 to more than $4,000. In some cases, it may be higher. For example, if you are required to pay out of state tuition or if you must repeat a class, the cost may increase.

Certified nursing assistant programs may cost from $300 to $3,000, depending on the length of the program and the cost of tuition, books, uniforms, and supplies. The American Red Cross offers a certified nursing assistant course for approximately $825. Some nursing homes or long-term care facilities provide free tuition, in-house training, and job placement for students who are willing to sign a contract to work for the facility after completion of the program.


8. CMA vs. CNA: Where Do They Typically Work?


Typically, certified medical assistants work in hospitals, outpatient clinics, physician's offices, and other healthcare facilities. Because they are trained in both administrative office tasks and clinical patient care, they are an integral part of the healthcare team. Therefore, they may find that securing job placement is not as difficult as some other professions.

Like CMAs, certified nursing assistants can work in any healthcare setting that provides direct patient care, especially if it is focused on basic care and comfort. Long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes and retirement or assisted living centers, are common places of employment for CNAs. However, they may also be employed in home health facilities, hospitals, and hospices, among other settings.


9. Differences in Work Hours


Work hours for both certified nursing assistants and certified medical assistants vary. Those who work in physician's offices or outpatient clinics may work day shifts and may not have to work nights, weekends, or holidays. Medical personnel, including CMAs and CNAs, who work in hospitals, inpatient facilities, long-term care facilities, may work alternating shifts, which could include weekends and holidays.


10. Differences in Work-Related Stress


Day to day stresses related to providing patient care is not uncommon among anyone providing care in the healthcare industry. The physical stress of lifting, transferring, or moving patients and equipment can lead to fatigue. Noisy work environments, extended shifts, changes in schedules, and patients in crisis may also add to work-related stress that both certified nursing assistants and certified medical assistants experience.

Because everyone is susceptible to stress at home and in the workplace, it is vital to have a healthy work/life balance. Getting proper nutrition, adequate sleep and rest, and having a consistent pattern of exercise can help relieve some of the complications related to work-related stress.


11. CMA vs. CNA: Job Satisfaction


According to PayScale.com, certified medical assistants surveyed gave an overall 3.82 out of 5 rating for job satisfaction. Another study suggests that 71 percent of CMAs report feeling satisfied with their career choice, and almost 80 percent say they believe the job they perform has a significant impact on making people's lives better. The study reports that 68 percent of certified nursing assistants are satisfied with their jobs and that 78 percent feel their job allows them to be a vital part of the lives of patients and their loved ones.


12. Differences in Job Outlook


Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, the employment of certified nursing assistant is expected to experience a projected growth of 9 percent from 2018 to 2028. Another report from the BLS suggests that certified medical assistants will see a 23 percent increase within the same time.

The number of the baby-boom population that is aging is believed to be one of the main factors that will influence the increased job growth. As individuals live longer and experience age-related changes or develop chronic conditions such as arthritis and other diseases, the need for more qualified healthcare professionals will increase.


13. Differences in Starting Salary


Entry-level salaries for certified nursing assistants average a little less than $10 per hour or $20,480 annually. Certified medical assistants typically earn close to $12 per hour, which is roughly $24,000 yearly.

CMAs or CNAs who work evening or night shifts or work weekends and holidays may earn additional income or be offered shift differential pay as an incentive to take those shifts.

Occupation Hourly Monthly Annual
CNA $9.85 $1,710 $20,480
CMA $11.76 $2,040 $24,470


14. Differences in Average Hourly Pay


CNA vs CMA hourly wages range from $13.77 per hour for certified nursing assistants to $16.28 for certified medical assistants. Some factors may influence the rate of pay for both CMAs and CNAs. For example, years of experience, the type of setting where they work, and the shift they work may impact the hourly rate offered.

Occupation Hourly Pay
CNA $13.77
CMA $16.28
(Source: Payscale.com)


15. CNA vs. CMA: Average Annual Salary


CNA vs CMA salary difference is approximately $5,000. Certified nursing assistants typically earn around $28,000 yearly, while certified medical assistants earn almost $34,000.

Top paying jobs for certified nursing assistants, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics are:

• Nursing care facilities: $28,910/annual salary
• Continuing care retirement communities $28,590/annual salary
• Home health agencies: $28,600/annual salary

Certified medical assistants can find some higher-paying jobs in the following industries, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

• Physician’s offices: $32,490/annual salary
• Outpatient care facilities: $39,190/annual salary
• General surgical and medical hospitals: $37,190/annual salary

Occupation Annual Salary
CNA $28,649
CMA $33,856
(Source: Payscale.com)


16. Differences in Salary by Level of Experience


The years of experience that a CMA vs CNA has may influence the difference in the salary each is offered. For example, newly certified nursing assistants begin work with an average annual income of $20,480. With each additional four to five years of work experience, CNAs typically see increases in their income of $3,000 to $4,000. With twenty or more years of experience, certified nursing assistants may make over $37,000 annually.

Certified medical assistants often have an entry-level annual income of about $24,470, which is almost $4,000 more than a CNAs beginning salary. As they gain more experience, CMAs may see increases from $3,000 to $8,000 every four to five years. By the time a CMA reaches twenty years of experience, he/she may earn more than $46,000 yearly.

Occupation Level of Experience Hourly Monthly Annual
CNA Starting (Entry-Level) $9.85 $1,710 $20,480
1-4 Years of Experience $11.41 $1,980 $23,740
5-9 Years of Experience $13.30 $2,310 $27,660
10-19 Years of Experience $15.81 $2,740 $32,880
20 Years or More Experience $18.21 $3,160 $37,880
CMA Starting (Entry-Level) $11.76 $2,040 $24,470
1-4 Years of Experience $13.42 $2,330 $27,920
5-9 Years of Experience $15.86 $2,750 $32,980
10-19 Years of Experience $18.35 $3,180 $38,170
20 Years or More Experience $22.20 $3,850 $46,180


The Bottom Line


There are several differences in a career as a certified medical assistant vs certified nursing assistant. Both careers offer an opportunity to provide care to patients in a variety of healthcare settings and to be an essential part of the healthcare delivery team. When deciding which career may be better suited for your long-term personal goals, consider the amount of money and time you want to invest in school, whether you plan to pursue a higher degree later, and the type of work you want to do. Because the healthcare industry is always growing and expanding, a career as either a certified medical assistant or a certified nursing assistant increases the potential of steady, long-term employment opportunities.


Darby Faubion BSN, RN
Darby Faubion is a nurse and Allied Health educator with over twenty years' experience. She has assisted in developing curriculum for nursing programs and has instructed students at both community college and university levels.